•…Continued from Portrait of a Lady (2).
Myth: The Mona Lisa was originally of a wider dimension.
On the rocks. It has been the belief that the Mona Lisa was made smaller through tampering, not when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, as some would think, but long before that. Unlike Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which was also reduced in size at some point, Leonardo’s lady may have been substantially affected by the alteration. According to the apocrypha, when the painting left the artist’s hands, it had columns on both sides, which made plain that the subject was seated on a balcony and not among the rocks, as is now seen. Part of the panel comprising the columns at both sides would seem to have been cut away for some still undetermined reason, causing even Walter Pater, the writer-critic who gave the most famous description of the Mona Lisa, to make an apparent error. The elimination of the columns has highlighted the mystery of the background and contributed to the allure of the painting, though the effect is one that Leonardo might never have intended.
However, art historians like Martin Kemp insist the painting has not been altered, and that the columns depicted in alleged copies of the original were added by the copyists themselves. In 2004-05 an international team of 39 specialists confirmed Kemp’s view after undertaking ‘the most thorough examination of the Mona Lisa ever’. They discovered that the frame covered an unpainted strip around all four edges of the panel, leaving the gessoed, or painted, portion untouched. The bare strip (called the ‘reserve’), which was likely to have been as much as 20 mm originally, was apparently trimmed at some point in order to fit the frame, but the gessoed area has remained pristine. Because of the buildup of paint around the edges of the gessoed area, the experts concluded that the reserve could not have been caused by a removal of paint or stripping of any part of the original masterwork.
Myth: The Mona Lisa is the most valuable painting in the world.
The lady shows her worth. The Mona Lisa is widely perceived as Leonardo’s greatest work, but not many critics agree. Those who are enraptured at the outset eventually grow weary of it, some even finding the subject “faintly repulsive.” More lasting respect is paid to The Last Supper, which is seen as a complex psychological panorama compressed in very limited space.
One would think the Mona Lisa has a financial worth matched only by its fame. In fact, Guinness lists the painting as the most valuable in the world, based on an assessment of $100 million in 1962. The honor is of dubious merit, however, since the appraisal was made for an insurance coverage that was never taken. As a practical matter, those that have gone through public auction—e.g., Van Gogh’s Irises, which sold for $53.9 million in 1987—are financially more valuable because of their proven market performance.
Moreover, the $100 million has already been surpassed in terms of actual dollar price by three other paintings: the Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, which was sold for $135 million (£73 million), the Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which sold for $137.5 million in November 2006, and No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, which sold for a record $140 million also in November 2006. The least that could be said for the Mona Lisa, however, is that until and unless it is decided to place this French-owned Italian classic on the bloc, its real value will never be known. If it is any consolation at all to the lady’s millions of admirers, $100 million in 1962 is approximately $670 million in 2006 when adjusted for inflation using the US Consumer Price Index.
And the billionaire connoisseur who is lucky enough to snag the Mona Lisa at $670 million will be getting himself a bargain—with a painting that, in the strictest sense, is not even an original! While he will be buying the piece that can be seen hanging proudly in the Louvre, he will be paying for the four versions of the item that Leonardo painted in succession, all co-existing with and inseparable from each other. Modern x-ray studies have shown that under the visible facade of the ‘Louvre ouvre’ are three more layers, each painted over by Leonardo because he wasn’t satisfied. The Mona Lisa that smiles mystically at the viewer these days is the maestro’s fourth and final rendering of the lady from Naples.
• All non-textual materials are from Google Images.