Did Leonardo da Vinci paint La Belle Ferronniere?

By Peter Duveen


PETER'S NEW YORK, Monday, January 25, 2010--On Thursday, Sotheby's will be auctioning a painting that some have argued is the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Estimates provided by the auction house are in the range of $300,000 to $500,000, reflecting Sotheby's contention that it is by a lesser hand, for if recognized experts affirmed it was by the legendary Renaissance painter, the bidding would likely top a hundred million dollars. 

The provenance of the painting is in dispute, and a controversy arose in the first half of the last century as to who painted the portrait in question. Another portrait, very much like it, hangs in the Louvre. The two are so similar that it is usually assumed that one is a copy of the other. The question is, which is the original?

La Belle Ferronniere, Hahn and Louvre portraits

La Belle Ferronniere, Hahn (left) and Louvre versions, as they appear in "The Rape of La Belle" (1946) by Harry Hahn.

A court case over the matter rivaling the Scopes trial transpired at the end of the 20th Century's third decade, with the plaintiff, Mrs. Andree Hahn, claiming that her painting was the true version of what is customarily referred to as La Belle Ferronniere. The trouble began in 1920 when Joseph Duveen, art dealer par excellence, said in response to an inquiry by a newspaper reporter that "the Hahn picture is a copy, hundreds of which have been made. The real La Belle Ferronniere is in the Louvre." This statement by a respected name in the art world scuttled a pending sale to a museum, and understandably angered Hahn, who evidently thought Duveen was trying to drag down the value of her painting.

Hahn sued, and in 1929, the case went to trial. It ended in a hung jury, with only three of the 12 jurors siding with Duveen, despite the phalanx of experts marshaled to defend his statement that the painting in the Louvre was the original. Justice William Harman Black of the Supreme Court of the State of New York refused to dismiss the charges even after the jury failed to find Duveen guilty. The flustered art dealer found it expedient to settle out of court for $60,000, a fraction of the $250,000 Hahn hoped to net in a sale of the painting.

Fast forward to 1946. In that year, Harry Hahn, Andree's husband, published under the title "The Rape of La Belle," a caustic critique of Duveen and the stable of experts he used to authenticate works of art and thus make them eminently more salable. By then, Duveen had met his maker, and, one assumes, had little stake in the authenticity of either portrait in question.

According to a press release recently issued by Sotheby's on the painting's impending sale, Hahn, in "The Rape of La Belle," "lambastes Duveen's 'lust for power' and vengeful attack on the picture." Interestingly, he does much more than that. By carefully constructed arguments based on years of his own research during and after the court case, and by relying on some of the testimony of experts at the trial, Hahn attempts to show that the the portrait he and his wife received as a wedding gift is indeed the true da Vinci, and the painting in the Louvre a copy. While such may not be the accepted wisdom, his arguments are substantive enough to deserve a hearing.

In the first place, Hahn asserts that the painting is misnamed, that La Belle Ferronniere refers to another portrait of a different woman in profile, albeit a work of da Vinci's, of which an original and a copy exist. This woman, according to William Sanger's "A History of Prostitution," was taken as a mistress by King Francis I of France (1494-1547). Realizing his predicament, the woman's husband did not openly protest the confiscation, but sought to contract syphilis, which he in turn gave to his wife, who communicated it to the king, who died of it.

The true subject of the Hahn portrait is said to be Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of Lodovico Il Sforza (1452-1508), Duke of Milan and a patron of da Vinci who was later taken prisoner by Francis I and died in captivity. The portrait was undertaken, according to Hahn, while Crivelli and Sforza were still living in Italy, and is referred to in a 1642 inventory of works in the royal collection as "a portrait of the Duchesse of Mantua." Hahn says this same portrait is listed in a 1752 inventory, as a work of da Vinci, "Portrait of a woman," further describing the subject as holding "a piece of small lace mesh." The Louvre portrait, on the other hand, according to Hahn, is one described as "Portrait of a woman in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci without hands."

Now Carol Vogel of The New York Times is not shy in telling us her own opinion on the subject. "Today 21st-century technology has dashed any hope that the painting is Leonardo’s work...". She explains that "while the Louvre painting is on panel, this (the Hahn) painting was on canvas. Poplar panel was a typical material for late 14th-century Florentine portraits like this one was thought to have been, while canvas was a material that became more common later."

There are no claims that either painting dates to the 14th century, Leonardo's active career having spanned the 15th and 16th centuries. The Times eventually caught this error, and has corrected it in the current online version of Vogel's story. However, Harry Hahn tells us that a restorer by the name of Hacquin transferred the Hahn painting from the original wood panel it was painted on, to canvas in the latter part of the 18th Century. Not long before, says Hahn, a technique had been developed to restore paintings by transferring them to canvas, and apparently Hacquin, the restorer for the King of France at the time, used this or a similar technique, which was fraught with difficulties but enjoyed a high rate of success when applied. Still, such a transfer was not entered into lightly, as it often took the better part of a year to accomplish successfully, and in some cases even longer, and was extremely labor intensive and expensive to carry out.

On the back of the Hahn canvas is an inscription, which reads: "Removed from wood and transferred to canvas by Hacquin in Paris 1777." Harry Hahn affords us a photograph of the back of the canvas with the inscription, to dispel any doubts, and also cites a mid-19th century sales catalog repeating the same information.

In her Times piece, Vogel bolsters her original assertion regarding the impossibility of the portrait's having been painted by Leonardo with the following statement: "Studies also showed that the canvas was primed with a double red pigment that was typical of French paintings from the late 17th century to the late 19th century." Priming a canvas is the process of preparing it for the artist to paint on. But as we have already seen, the reason why the painting is on canvas is because it has been transferred from wood, so the pigment in question would have been laid down at the time of the transfer, and not when the portrait was originally created. The presence of this double red pigment would not have any bearing on the age of the painting, other than indicating that the painting was at least as old as the act of transfer, which must be obvious at this point.

In the process of its restoration, Hahn asserts that the painting lost about four centimeters from its base, which removed the detail of the subject's hand or hands holding a piece of lace mesh. This excision would explain both the reference to a painting in which the subject is holding the lace mesh, as well as the reference to a portrait in the manner of da Vinci "without hands," which Hahn says is a description of the Louvre portrait. Neither of the portraits currently show the subject's hands.

Hahn does not stop at a detailed analysis of the provenance of each painting. He examines court testimony by an expert witness, Prof. Arthur Pillans-Laurie, called by Duveen for his knowledge of historical pigments used in each portrait. This expert, according to Hahn, carefully assayed both portraits with a microscope, and testified that the Hahn painting incorporated the fine pigments vermilion (red), and ultramarine (blue), the latter of which was prepared from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, considered rare and of great durability. The Louvre painting, according to the same expert, has not a trace of these valuable pigments that were in vogue during the Renaissance. Hahn also argues that the green pigments in each picture differ markedly, with the one found in the Hahn painting having been favored by da Vinci, while that found in the other portrait coming into common use only after da Vinci's death.

"Would the astute experts of the Duveen clan have us believe that a copyist could use the rarest and most expensive of all pigments in creating a picture, which is, according to their ringmaster, 'a simple copy, hundreds of which have been made'"? Harry Hahn asks his readers.

Hahn marshals other evidence to support the authenticity of his painting:

1. X-ray photos of both paintings show that the Louvre portrait has a primer of heavy metal pigment, which obscures most features of the portrait. Details of the Hahn portrait are not obscured in x-rays because the primer consisted of animal glue and a form of calcium carbonate such as chalk or marble, which is not nearly as opaque to x-rays and more easily shows details painted over it. Such a primer is closer to what da Vinci would have used, according to Hahn.

2. The Louvre portrait is painted on 1/2 inch wooden panels more likely to have been used in a later work, whereas the practice among Leonardo and his contemporaries was to use wood panels twice as thick.

3. The Hahn portrait uses a mixed technique of tempera (water-based) and oil painting, whereas the Louvre painting employs a full oil technique, which was a development of the generation of artists after Leonardo. "The full oil technique is definitely not the technique of Leonardo nor any of his pupils, and did not come into use until the time of Titian and Correggio," says Hahn.

"There is no question about the authenticity of the Hahn panting," Hahn concludes in his 274 page work. "It is the Portrait of a Woman, by Leonardo da Vinci, as this is fully described by Bernard Lepicie in his inventory of the Crown collection dated 1752. Likewise, there is no further question about the status of the painting, Portrait of a Woman 'in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, without hands,' now in the Louvre Museum, No. 1600. It is a copy."

Among those who are certain the Hahn portrait is not by da Vinci is George Wachter of Sotheby's. "The Hahn picture "is not by Leonardo, I’m certain of that.” he is quoted by Vogel as stating, Vogel attempts to bolster her view by citing recent studies of the painting. "Pigment analysis also revealed the use of lead-tin yellow, a color employed in the 17th century that reappeared again only in paintings dating from the mid-20th century." This, Vogel tells us, leads Watcher to believe that the portrait was painted before 1750. That, of course, is but little help in telling us how old the painting is, as it only provides an upper limit to its date of execution. In sum, the experts cited by Vogel appear to have added little to scholarship in the way of letting us know who painted the portrait. As informative as her article is, it lets us down at least on this one point. Vogel does not delve into the credentials of the Louvre portrait, which is also of disputed authorship.

Turning for answers to the Sotheby press release announcing the auction, we find an equally unsatisfying explanation.

In 1993, La Belle Ferronnière was examined by a leading Leonardo expert, who concluded that while the painting was not by Leonardo, it did in fact have age, and suggested that it dated to the first half of the 17th Century. Recent scientific analysis of the pigments used confirms that conjecture and suggests the work was painted by a French artist, or someone using French materials, before 1750.

In support of the view that the Hahn portrait is a copy of the one in the Louvre may be mentioned the following statement by Alan Borroughs in his book, "Art Criticism from a Laboratory"(1938). Borroughs was a witness at the Duveen trial, and Harry Hahn argues that he perjured himself by insisting that the back of the Louvre portrait had been painted with a substance that was relatively opaque to x-rays, when it clearly had not been. Hahn provides a photograph of the back of the Louvre portrait to bolster his case. However, this did not discourage Borroughs from noting in his book some eight years after the trial: "Jewelry was incorporated into the design from the start, the flesh being painted up to the jewels and not beneath them." That might indeed be evidence that the Hahn painting is a copy. But while Borroughs affords us many illustrations in his book of the x-rays of famous paintings, he for some reason omits any for the Hahn portrait, so we must take his word for what the x-rays might tell us about the manner in which the painting was executed.

The subject of the Louvre work has a dimple that is absent from the Hahn painting. It is this sort of detail that might be glossed over, or even covered up, in a copy. At the same time, at least one expert quoted by Hahn notes that the two portraits are distinct enough to make it possible that they are not derived one from the other, a contention, incidentally, that Hahn himself does not side with. Referring to his painting, Harry Hahn quotes, in translation, Ferdinand Laneuville, an expert connected with the Louvre, as saying in 1846: "This painting presents notable differences with the one in the museum. It is evident by comparing them that one is not the copy of the other." Perhaps the Louvre portrait is of Crivelli's daughter, Djem, who, it is said, traveled with Crivelli to the court of the French king and became one of his mistresses.

Only last year, a detailed and enthralling history of the Hahn portrait appeared on bookshelves. John Brewer, author of The American Leonardo, expressed some frustration after his years of research. "Working on this book," says Brewer, "I was often astonished at the cavalier (and, as far as I could see, largely groundless) judgments made by members of the art world, comments based more on fitting in with a consensus or on hearsay than any careful deliberation or consideration of evidence.

"What I hope for--and maybe I am being very naive about this--is a serious examination of the painting by experts of more than one persuasion..." In other words, one would expect at least one expert to side with the position that La Belle Ferronniere could be a work by da Vinci, but apparently he found none.

One wonders if our present day art experts, in besting each other to prove the Hahn painting is not one of da Vinci's works, are falling into the "Joe Duveen" trap. One might hope for their sakes that either the Hahns have lost their penchant for litigation, or, if that proves not to be the case, that their opinions are not considered as authoritative as was Duveen's.

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COMMENT by Mike McShane, artist:

My first impression as an artist myself is that the Hahn painting on the left was the original da Vinci and this was BEFORE I read the article. The softness and shape of the face and eyes, especially the shadows, is more graduated , wheras the Louvre version has the feeling of someone trying hard to copy the other and a more "forced " look, more like a xerox contrasted look to a photo. The seams on the clothes are tighter looking on the Hahn. Today some new theories say many of the works of da Vinci may be the work of his proteges; he may have started a painting and his students finished it .The right arm of the Hahn disappears behind the torso into the dark background.This is more correct. The softness of the light on the face resembles the Mona Lisa more. The Louvre painting neck stretches out too far, then turns to look at the viewer; the Hahn is at a more natural angle. IMHO.

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