Is This “Earlier Mona Lisa” the Real Deal?

“Isleworth Mona Lisa,” oil on canvas, 33 1/4 x 25 2/5 inches, attributed by some scholars to Leonardo da Vinci (image via Wikimedia Commons)

She’s an icon, she’s a legend, and she is the moment — but is she the real deal? The “Isleworth Mona Lisa,” a 16th-century portrait of Lisa del Giocondo that has been the subject of multiple debates across generations, is on view in Turin, Italy, through an exhibition put on by the Mona Lisa Foundation on behalf of the painting’s anonymous owners. Leonardo da Vinci scholars have volleyed arguments and analyses regarding the correct attribution and date of the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” back and forth for decades — some allege that the portrait was painted by the Renaissance artist prior to the famous painting on view at the Louvre, while others have gone to lengths to prove that it’s just a copy.

The Mona Lisa Foundation, based in Zurich, Switzerland, examined evidence that identifies the Isleworth portrait, known as such because it was purchased by Old Masters collector Hugh Blaker for his studio in Isleworth, London, as the “Earlier Mona Lisa.” With input from and research conducted by scholars in multiple academic and professional disciplines, the foundation’s conclusion is that the Isleworth painting predates the work at the Louvre for multiple reasons.

At first glance, the two portraits are rather similar — a brunette woman with sultry, heavy-lidded eyes and a nearly imperceptible smile, right hand draped over the left wrist, and a natural backdrop. However, the foundation notes that Lisa del Giocondo appears much younger in the Isleworth portrait and that Leonardo frequently painted two versions of his masterpieces. Researchers also cite a 2005 discovery of a handwritten note from 1503 addressing the artist’s work on the commission, as well as a variety of scientific and physical examinations into the materiality and composition of the Isleworth portrait over the decades, as further proof that Leonardo painted the “Earlier Mona Lisa.”

Many remain skeptical or totally unconvinced, such as art historian, Leonardo expert, and University of Oxford professor Martin Kemp, who assisted with the authentication of the controversial “Salvator Mundi” (c. 1499–1510). In 2012, Kemp published a blog post dissecting the foundation’s book on the topic, stating that “it is evident that the copyist has failed to understand significant details and the suggestive subtlety of Leonardo’s image” before listing off reasons as to why the portrait could not possibly be attributed to the Renaissance artist.

To be fair, while the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s face is yassified with coral lips, brighter skin, and a pointier chin, the rest of the painting does appear flat in terms of color and detail, at least based on images. The only question we have is whether the use of selfie sticks is permitted at the Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti, where the Isleworth portrait will be on view through May 26, 2024.

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