The Salvator Mundi oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519)
After reviewing all available information online, images and other literature I’ve found about this work, I believe that the Salvator Mundi is not pure da Vinci. If not a skillful forgery, this painting has passages painted by Leonardo with the rest filled in by his student at best. The more I study this painting, the more inconsistencies appear in the entire image of the Salvator Mundi. In the following text you’ll find why the authentication process of da Vinci’s work is so speculative.
The last artwork authenticated as Leonardo’s – the Benois Madonna (the Hermitage, St. Petersburg) was over 100 years ago. With just about 15 paintings coming down to us, finding a new da Vinci is extremely rare, which partially explains its price. Now we know that it’s the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Salvator Mundi or Savior of the World sold for the astronomical $450,312,500 (that includes buyer’s premium) at Christie’s New York. While you can find plenty of information online about the artwork’s ownership and how the Salvator Mundi arrived at Christie’s, I’d like to talk about this painting from the artistic point of view and what inconsistencies I see in it, despite the fact that I’m not a Leonardo’s expert. When art sells for millions we want to question its origin from the get go. We can also say that when art sells for millions, every expert would agree on its provenance, right? I’ve changed my mind after listening to the interview with an art dealer Robert Simon who made me believe it’s the real Leonardo because of a very slow process of discoveries he outlines in his story (Suggested Donation podcast: http://www.suggesteddonationpodcast.com/blog/2015/9/15/episode-21-robert-simon). After listening to the podcast, I got interested in researching the available documentation and imagery, and therefore the more I looked, the more doubtful I became of its origin once again. Here is why.
In his story Robert Simon describes the terrible condition he found the artwork in. Although he saw the beautiful hand immediately that didn’t correspond stylistically to a harshly overprinted face, Mr. Simon had no idea it would be art by da Vinci when he got this artwork. In the interview you’ll learn how slow the process of discovery actually was, working closely with the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Both of them found clues to the fact that this artwork may be by Leonardo, and eventually Robert Simon introduced this painting to the Leonardo’s experts in London to see if it were his indeed.
The strongest references leading to the existence of the Salvator Mundi by da Vinci
In the scholarly article by Joanne Snow-Smith she traces the whereabouts of the artist by looking at the trail of paperwork registered in royal courts. She concludes that Louis XII, the king of France, ordered a direct commission to Leonardo da Vinci in 1507, made payments for it between 1507-11, and demanded its completion and turn over in 1513. So the artwork was painted between 1507-1513 (painting on and off for years is a lot like da Vinci). And the artist turned it in in 1513 to the king’s intermediaries. Next year the king’s wife died and he donated the artwork to a convent in 1514 where it remained for over a century until it got to Charles I royal collection. Below you’ll find images with dates that don’t quite correspond to this timeline. For instance, Leonardo’s studies of clothed arms and chest were done between 1504-8 and many paintings with similar composition are dated before 1507. Joanne Snow-Smith proposes that Leonardo painted two copies of the Salvator Mundi based on similarities and differences in the etching, copy paintings and the Windsor castle drawings. ( Source: “The Salvator Mundi of Leonardo da Vinci” by Joanne Snow-Smith, Arte Lombarda Nuova Serie, No. 50 (1978), pp. 69-81).
So the Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi painting existed for sure, maybe even in two versions, which is also possible because the artist painted two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks. What raises questions if the etching was done from that da Vinci’ painting hidden in the convent for a century. The etching by Hollar becomes important because it’s one of the strongest visual references to the proposed original, or perhaps, it served as a prototype for a beautiful forgery. I’ll explain why.
(What is etching? Intaglio or etching is one of the oldest forms of printmaking where an artist would draw an image with a needle on a metal plate, engrave itA single image could have many stages or states in its development when the artist increases contrast by building up strokes in the shadows. Every new state goes through the same process of acid corrosion, inking and printing. Because the artist hand-inks the plate and decides how much ink to remove from it, the final image may appear much lighter or darker. Not a single stroke can be removed, so artists exercised great control over the quality and quantity of their strokes. Master etchers among the old masters to check out are Rembrandt and Durer.)
If we begin to compare this etching to the discovered Salvator Mundi we can observe three things. The eyes look in different direction. Christ has a definite beard in the Hollar’s etching unlike in the presented painting, and the depiction of the orb’s reflection is not what the scientist artist would actually see but is repetitive in both etching and da Vinci’s painting, and even copy paintings. If the etching was done from the original da Vinci, it raises questions how the artist could have ignored the effects of optics he studied so carefully. (Below you’ll find my photos of the orb and how it appears placed in a hand).
The second strongest visual reference to the existence of the Salvator Mundi are da Vinci’s studies located in Windsor castle collection.
There are also many copy paintings made from either the original or the etching, letting us believe that the artists were familiar with the original composition of the Salvator Mundi and painted either copies or their interpretations on the theme. By looking at these painted copies we can see striking similarities to the etching and the da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in the depiction of both hands, the orb, and the figure positioning painted by various artists. However, based on the existing documents and style, the da Vinci painting was painted between 1507 and 1513, while he was in the service of king Louis XII, which places some of the copies before da Vinci finished working on his painting. Unless da Vinci had conceived and began working on this composition before 1503 (Mona Lisa was begun between 1503-6), and other artists had already seen it, it’s difficult to believe that this composition is original Leonardo. Leonardo’s drawings of clothed arms are dated 1504-8. Therefore it’s either the fact that these paintings were done after a different painting (and not from the da Vinci’s), or Leonardo borrowed the composition and its elements for his work from the Flemish painters and the Vera Icon (Head of Christ) by van Eyck (now lost and existing in contemporary copies of his workshop). Or Leonardo made the first version of his painting before working on the Louis XII commission, which is less likely.
What looks like Leonardo?
By looking at some copy paintings above it’s easy to see that these artists were able to copy the beautiful hand, orb and delicate pattern of the clothing. However, none of them could copy the same glowing face of the da Vinci painting. The ambiguous face in the Salvator Mundi is so much like Leonardo. Illusive. Ethereal. Glowing. The artist achieved such appearance by glazing very thin layers of oil paint mixed with the medium (walnut oil) to produce this effect – the sfumato technique, the very style we see in the Mona Lisa, the Saint John the Baptist, and in the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. And by looking at the painting for the first time without studying it carefully, it’s easy to conclude that it’s by Leonardo because the painting style is so similar to other works of this period by the artist.
In traditional way of painting the artist sketches out the form in a warm brown paint on panel or canvas, and develops color and volume in subsequent layering. In the technique of the old masters multiple layers were very thin to achieve the desired atmospheric effect. The da Vinci’s sfumato technique involves multiple glazing of thin paint, so thin that some areas don’t even show up in the X-ray examinations. In his podcast interview Robert Simon describes how they took a probe on the face of the Salvator Mundi to reveal 17 layers of paint.
However, while the painting style is so Leonardonesque, the crooked tip of the nose and the cross-eyed appearance of Christ raise questions for me as an artist. Being a scientist, Leonardo’s anatomy drawings show exquisite understanding and perfection of human form of that period, so these anatomical discrepancies look like obvious flaws. Why would the artist paint the body of Christ with such symmetry and ignore the symmetry of the eyes and nose? One explanation is that the panel has cracked and warped so much in five centuries that it changed the appearance of the drawing in the nose and chipped off some paint in the eyes (which is hard to believe because the pupils look so uneven, and the shape of the eyes is different). I would like to hear the restorer’s explanation to understand this. If you look at this picture where I overlay straight lines over his face, you can see how really crooked the nose is, which lines up with the mouth but not with the top part of the face. The eyes don’t line up either, each having a different shape. In other Leonardo’s drawings and paintings you can see a more complicated rotations of the head that demand a perfect line up of facial features.
Moreover, In the Hollar’s etching we can observe that the Christ’s eyes look in a different direction compared to the painting. The man also wears a definite beard in the etching unlike in the da Vinci’s painting that looks illusive.
On top of that the presented Salvator Mundi has a non-existent neck. When you look at the line up of faces from da Vinci paintings above, you see a different style of handling neck painting by the artist. All of them are cylinder-like and quite definite.
The Salvator Mundi blessing hand is the most realistic, da Vinci-like element in the entire painting. It’s elegant design and unbelievably well-painted anatomy make it the best hand by Leonardo I’ve seen in comparison to his other paintings.
While we can see the Leonardonesque hair in this portrait where every strand is observed, this visual element is actually prone to copying well by other artists (see the image above of Salvator Mundi, School of Leonardo da Vinci, c.1503 ). And it was a popular element in Italian painting too that makes it much harder to make a statement that Leonardo was the only artist painting these beautiful curls in this manner. Leonardo got his initial training in the Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop in Florence where he assisted the master artist in completion of art, working among many other students.
Here is first known work where da Vinci painted the angel to the left.
How the painting gets cleaned
In general, paintings get cleaned by removing the varnish, which is a protective coating that traps the dirt and UV light, and protects the oil paint from damage. Usually the removal of old varnish, reveals a much lighter and brighter painting with the original, beautiful colors painted by the artist. High-quality paints wouldn’t fade as much, rather would become more transparent with age. What we see in the first image is the removal of the overpainted image that reveals the original painting underneath it. White lines look like gesso marks crudely painted over the cracks of the original painting trying to fill them in. Oil paint is applied over the gesso to create a painting. By comparing the first and the last image we can see how much restoration was done. In the interview Mr.Simon says that the Salvator Mundi came to him in terrible condition: the walnut panel had a big vertical crack that was poorly repaired and repainted multiple times over. Smaller cracks and hastily repairs damaged the surface to a great degree.
Dianne Modestini made an incredible job cleaning and restoring the artwork. She didn’t just create a new version of Christ like we see in the overpainted image in the center. Rather, she stripped the painting down to its original state, fixing the “scratches.” The Da Vinci’s signature style – sfumato and the ethereal appearance of the face, are present after 500 years from its creation. The original color of clothing may have been different, however, probably having brighter blues in the beginning. Here is what the restorer says about the painting on Christie’s website.
“Dianne Modestini explains that the original walnut panel on which Leonardo, who was known for his use of experimental material, executed Salvator Mundi contained a knot which had split early in its history. However, she concludes that important parts of the painting are remarkably well-preserved, and close to their original state. These include both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery. The magnificently executed blessing hand, Modestini notes, is intact. With regards to the face, Modestini comments, ‘Fortunately, apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire layer structure, including the final scumbles and glazes. These passages have not suffered from abrasion; if they had I wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct the losses.’
During the conservation process, pentimenti — preliminary compositional ideas, subsequently changed by the artist in the finished painting, but not reflected in the etching or painted copies — are observed through infrared imaging, and duly photographed. The most prominent is a first position for the thumb in the blessing hand, more upright than in the finished picture. IRR imagery also reveals distinct handprints, especially evident on the proper left side of Christ’s forehead, where the artist smoothed and blotted the paint with his palm. This kneading of the paint in order to create soft and amorphous effects of shadow and light is typical of the artist’s technique in the latter part of Leonardo’s career. ” (source: http://www.christies.com/features/Salvator-Mundi-timeline-8644-3.aspx )
da Vinci’s materials and the preparatory ground
Because the artwork’s creation is placed close to the Mona Lisa painting in its style and dates, one of the clues to the authentication of the Salvator Mundi would be the examination and analysis under a microscope of preparatory ground (gesso) underneath the oil paint. It’s known that Leonardo tinted the ground in two colors: blue under the top/ landscape area; red under the bottom area in Mona Lisa, La Belle Ferronniere, The Musician, and St. Anne. ( Pietro C. Marani, Leonardo da Vinci, the complete paintings, Harry N. Abrams, inc. publishers, p. 198). Such examination would also reveal marks of an underlying drawing traced in the ground. Christie’s website mentions spolveri — pouncing — can be seen running along the line of the upper lip. “The rest of the body has a much looser, brushy underdrawing, with further small changes of mind. This combination of careful preparation for the head and much greater improvisation for the body is characteristic of Leonardo.” The X-rays would show different positions or variations of features from the finished painting. Because da Vinci painted in very thin glazes, some elements like an illusive smile or hair may not show up in the X-rayed images.
On the Christie’s website you’ll find this statement. “Powerfully convincing evidence of Leonardo’s authorship was provided by the discovery of numerous pentimenti — preliminary composition ideas, subsequently changed by the artist in the finished painting, but not reflected in the etching or painted copies. The most prominent of these — a first position for the thumb in the blessing hand, more upright than in the finished picture — was uncovered and photographed during the conservation process.” Further examination with infrared imaging would show additional pentimenti- changes in the drawing, which are recorded on the Christie’s website as subtle changes found in the contour of the hand holding the orb.
While these discoveries of pentimenti and spolveri are good indications of the old master work, they are not exclusive to Leonardo’s method of work. And if we think of a careful forgery, this method of working on a painting could have been forged after reading a comprehensive book on Leonardo.
Da Vinci was famous for his experimentation with materials and techniques (Look at the terrible condition of the Last Supper mural). While most artists of his time painted on poplar panels, he chose the walnut one. (Half of his paintings are on poplar wood). He also was one of the first painters to use the walnut oil, which slows down the drying time of oil paint and thus allows for a prolonged painting period. While the walnut oil doesn’t yellow unlike the linseed oil, it’s less stable and may contribute to a weaker bond between many layers of paint and thus makes the painting more susceptible to damage in the long run.
“Technical examinations and analyses have demonstrated the consistency of the pigments, media, and technique discovered in Salvator Mundi with those known to have been used by Leonardo. Syson notes particularly the use of precious lapis lazuli in the Christ’s celestial blue clothes, a practice that was unusual at this date, suggestive of the opulence of the commission.”
Da Vinci was not the only artist to use precious pigments in his art. Florentine artist Giotto (c. 1266-1337) comes to mind. Therefore it can’t be a strong argument to authenticate the painting based on the precious pigments used, in my opinion.
What’s fake? (or added after Leonardo)
The da Vinci’s orb is not by da Vinci
The orb’s reflection makes this painting the hardest thing to believe that it’s by da Vinci. It’s painted with transparency of glass that’s impossible to achieve, considering the shape and properties of the orb, regardless its material. da Vinci was a scientist who studied the effects of optics and light extensively. His knowledge of optics is shown in his atmospheric quality of layering paint on figures and landscape backgrounds. There are many scientific drawings made by Leonardo that show his curiosity and understanding of nature. As an artist he was exceptional at perfecting every aspect of a painting: composition, atmosphere, color, anatomy, etc. While in the following pictures you’ll see how the orb’s reflection actually looks like, I want to speculate that Da Vinci’s original was unfinished at the time he needed to give it to the king Louis XII, and it was hastily completed by one of his students. Leonardo was notorious for not finishing his projects (and not just paintings), and like in the Mona Lisa case, it’s presumed the painting traveled with the artist, and he worked on it on and off for about 5 years.
Isaacson believes that this was “a conscious decision on Leonardo’s part”, and speculates that either Leonardo felt a more accurate portrayal would be distracting, or “he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb”. Kemp, on the other hand, says the doubled outline of the heel of the hand holding the sphere—which the restorer described as a pentimento—is an accurate rendering of the refraction produced by a calcite sphere.
Both of these statements are weak on substance because a change in material of the orb wouldn’t make it glass-like, and it seems close to impossible that Leonardo would override his scientific side in favor of creative interpretation. ( da Vinci considered himself a scientist, not a painter by writing a letter to L. Sforza of Milan offering his services to the court as a military engineer.)
Composition and background
Many are concerned with the provenance of artwork due to its tight, so-unlike-da-Vinci composition and a dark, empty background. While the background itself is of a lesser concern here because da Vinci painted several artworks with similar, dark background, what’s unclear why the figure is so frontal and sits so close to the edge.
No realist artist would allow himself to place a figure so tight to the edge of the frame like we see in the Salvator Mundi. While this is a common mistake for a beginner, artists like da Vinci just couldn’t afford sacrificing composition to this degree. When the form is so close to the edge, it creates tension, which every good artist tries to avoid making. If the sleeve or hand get cropped, it should look intentional and more definite (like we see in the Impressionists). In this painting we observe Christ’s hands and arms sitting so unbelievably close to the edge of the painting, the figure barely fits in the frame. The only explanation of such positioning is cropping of a wood panel at a later stage in history of the painting. But we can see the same cropping of the figure in the Hollar’s etching and copy paintings! How would this be possible? Was the original painting cropped within the first 100 years of storage in a convent? What would be the reason for doing so? No adequate frame was found around to fit it in? Was the etching done not from the original da Vinci, which makes this painting forged from the etching itself?
In his art Leonardo rotated the figures to get a more dynamic position of a sitter. He either twisted the figures or used three-quarters view in portraiture art. Was it his intention to reverse to the iconic imagery of the Medieval art to create a more universal image of Christ? There is a long history of iconography with frontal depiction of Christ that makes me think if Leonardo could make himself skip on his innovations in composition, reverting to this Medieval, symmetrical image of Christ.
Some argue that it’s work by Leonardo because of the triangular composition (hands and head form a triangle). However, triangles were widely used by many artists as a design element in painting. We can also argue that the Salvator Mundi is either a forgery or an inspiration for other artists by comparing its composition to the Durer’s self-portrait at 28. What’s interesting here is that although Durer was German, he traveled to Italy around that time and may have seen the da Vinci’s work-in-progress in person, because this self-portrait is drastically different from his previous two. Or we can argue that the forger tried to create this universal, frontal image of Christ basing it off of the etching and Durer’s portrait.
The more I study the Salvator Mundi, the more questions it raises. And the deeper I go, the more puzzling the inconsistencies become, placing a veil of serious doubt over this painting. Despite my first impression that the portrait has this da Vinci signature look where every detail is carefully observed and the skin has his glow, all the problems I’ve listed above make me think that it’s either Leonardo’s underpainting finished by his student (considered the Old Master’s work), or it’s a complete forgery. What’s clear is that it’s not enough to compare da Vinci artworks visually. Only a thorough examination of all written documents as well as modern chemical analysis of the painting (and the etching) could authenticate the present Salvator Mundi by giving us the original dates. No matter how much time the experts would spend comparing this work to others done by da Vinci, there is still a lot of doubt in place if it’s his. And if it’s not a skillful forgery, the Leonardo’s style is most definite in the face and the blessing hand, not in the orb, hair or fabric, which are fairly easy to forge.
Of course, this painting and its origin may deserve the criticism it receives from people working in the field that includes many experts on da Vinci’s art. Perhaps it may receive some criticism from art critics like we see here by Jerry Saltz. However, if someone is not an artist, hasn’t held a brush long enough to understand how hard realist painting is, or has meager knowledge of art history should refrain from posting negative comments about the artwork and moreover about the restorer herself on social media, which I’ve seen a lot. Please don’t troll without substance.
Scholarly papers database http://www.jstor.org | Snow-Smith, J. (1978). The Salvator Mundi of Leonardo da Vinci. Arte Lombarda, (50), nuova serie, 69-81. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43105161
Pietro C. Marani, Leonardo da Vinci, the complete paintings, Harry N. Abrams, inc. publishers
Windsor Castle royal collection: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/page/1
Christie’s timeline: http://www.christies.com/features/Salvator-Mundi-timeline-8644-3.aspx
Suggested Donation: http://www.suggesteddonationpodcast.com/blog/2015/9/15/episode-21-robert-simon