After breaking the world record as the most expensive painting ever sold at an auction for $450.3m, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is at the heart of a hot debate among critics and historians who question whether this painting on wood of Jesus was ever touched by Leonardo’s brush.
Some say it could have been made by Giovanni Boltraffio, an Italian artist who worked as a pupil in Leonardo’s studio.
As the New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo.”
He continues: “The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old.”
Many art experts who have laid eyes on the Salvator Mundi have spent the week discussing its authenticity. “I don’t believe the attribution to Leonardo is correct,” said Todd Levin, a curator and art adviser at Levin Art Group in New York.
“Nobody can definitively prove that with any veracity, unless a new, probative piece of evidence could significantly change this. The attribution to Giovanni Boltraffio strikes me as correct.”
Michael Daley, an artist and director of ArtWatch UK, which campaigns for the protection of art against damaging treatments, also questions the painting’s origins. “The Salvator Mundi is a heavily made-over wreck of a work with no history before 1900,” said Daley.
The painting had unknown whereabouts from 1763 to 1900 – a large time gap to disappear – before being acquired by art collector Charles Robinson of Richmond, near London, who thought it was painted by Leonardo follower Bernardino Luini.
It sold at Sotheby’s for $60 in 1958, was restored and then believed to be an authentic Leonardo in 2011. It was exhibited at the National Gallery in London before Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought the painting in 2013 for $127.5m.
“Having studied and followed the picture during its conservation treatment, and seeing it in context in the exhibition, much of the original surface may be by Boltraffio, but with passages done by Leonardo himself, namely Christ’s proper right blessing hand, portions of the sleeve, his left hand and the crystal orb he holds,” she wrote in Apollo magazine in 2012.
German art historian Frank Zöllner recognizes that the Salvator Mundi’s attribution is controversial “for it had to undergo very extensive restoration, which makes its original quality extremely difficult to assess”, he wrote in the preface to the 2017 edition of his book, Leonardo – the Complete Paintings and Drawings.
It’s recorded as being painted in 1500, between Leonardo’s Last Supper from 1495-98 and before he painted the Mona Lisa in 1503. But it may have been painted later.
“We might sooner see the Salvator Mundi as a high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop, painted only after 1507 and possibly much later, on whose execution Leonardo was personally involved,” he writes, explaining that it “exhibits a strongly developed sfumato technique that corresponds more closely to the manner of a Leonardo pupil active in the 1520s than to the style of the master himself”.
The painting’s attribution can be questioned by its restoration process over 500 years, which has been so extensive that Old Masters gallerist Robert Simon said it “makes it look like a copy”. In 2011, he noted the painting “had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better”.
The restoration is no side note, as it significantly affects the viewer experience. “This painting, regardless of who it’s by, is in a poor condition at best,” said Levin. “It has been considerably over-painted several times and it has been aggressively over-cleaned. If the image of a painting is defaced to this extreme extent, it doesn’t matter who it’s by, the painting is effectively gone.
“When one is standing in front of the painting, regardless of the artist, it’s not a gripping masterpiece, and Leonardo is known for gripping masterpieces,” said Levin. “It’s hard for me to believe the attribution to Leonardo.”
Could the painting be a product of “picture surgeons” and their botchings? “Restorers started calling themselves ‘picture surgeons’ at one point and were mocked for being more ‘cosmetic surgeons’,” explains Daley.
“What they do is what they’ve always done; strip down previous restorers’ work and add their own – the traditional complaint against them is that they are forever undoing and redoing pictures, which is always destructive in the first part and falsifying in the second.”
The painting’s conservator Dianne Modestini started working on Salvator Mundi in 2005. When reached through email, Modestini stands by the artwork as a Leonardo, and disagrees when asked about the claims that the artwork has been heavily over-painted.
“The painting is definitely by Leonardo and has been scrupulously studied, conserved, and restored,” wrote Modestini. “It is damaged but not ‘heavily over-painted’, which would be unethical.”
Martin Kemp, a Leonardo scholar who co-authored Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, comments on the restoration of Salvator Mundi.
“There was very serious damage and over-painting, which totally obscured the quality of the picture,” said Kemp. “The worst effects have been overcome by a very judicious campaign of cleaning, securing the panel and filling-in lost paint.”
However, Kemp attests the painting is a Leonardo. “There are no well-founded doubts about Leonardo’s responsibility for the picture,” he said. “This is not just a matter of judgment by eye, but based on technical examination, and ineffable signs of Leonardo’s ‘science of art’, most notably optics, which none of his followers understood.”
What about the art pundits and historians who are doubtful of the painting’s attribution? Kemp is doubtful.
“Who amongst accredited Leonardo scholars?” he asks. “‘Critics’ and ‘some reports’ won’t do.”
“Carmen Bambach alone of Leonardo specialists suggested that Boltraffio was heavily involved – without any clear foundation – and this has been transmuted with second-hand quotes into Boltraffio being the author,” said Kemp. “Sloppy and self-serving journalism, I’m afraid.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010