Not all art lovers know that Leonardo painted two versions of the Mona Lisa. The first painting, known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa, was created some years earlier than the version shown today in the Louvre in Paris. The woman in the first painting is younger, and there are some tantalizing differences in her pose and expression. Anyone who has seen both paintings understand that they are both genuine works of Leonardo da Vinci.
The story of the earlier Mona Lisa is a fascinating window into Leonardo’s creative process. Learning how and why the two paintings were created can help art lovers understand the great master and the early sixteenth-century time period in which he worked.
The provenance of the Isleworth Mona Lisa is clear. There is a uniquely detailed historical footprint for the creation of the painting, supported by contemporary accounts.
Leonardo had an established habit of working on more than one version of the same subject. (Big Book – Introduction, pg XVII) Some other subjects where he maintained separate artworks were the Madonna of the Yarnwinder and the Virgin and St. Anne.
When Leonardo worked with the same subject more than once, he had the opportunity to explore new drawing and painting techniques. It also allowed him to target his artistic creations to a particular time or place.
Why the Isleworth Mona Lisa?
The earlier painting was rediscovered in the early 20th century in Isleworth, London. Hugh Blaker, a famous art critic and collector, found the painting in an auction in Somerset, England and brought it back to his studio. Historians use the “Isleworth” Mona Lisa and the “earlier” Mona Lisa interchangeably.
The Model: Lisa del Giocondo
In about 1503, Leonardo received a commission to paint Lisa del Giocondo. Lisa was a young lady in her early twenties, and she had several children. Her husband Francesco del Giocondo was an emerging civic leader in Florence and having a prestigious portrait in their household would be a coup.
When Leonardo painted Lisa, he captured her spirit and personality. It is easy to see the warmth in her smile.
The Painting’s Characteristics
The Isleworth, or earlier, Mona Lisa is an oil painting on canvas. The subject sits at a three-quarter angle from the artist, with her head tilted forward and her hands crossed. Unlike the Louvre painting, the Isleworth painting is flanked by two architectural columns. The background is merely sketched in, again unlike the Louvre painting where the background is finished.
While Leonardo da Vinci worked on the painting in Florence, several contemporary art and historical figures stood by as witnesses. One of the most prominent is the famous Renaissance painter Raphael. Raphael produced a pen-and-ink copy of the painting in or around 1604. The sketch included the two columns and the specific facial expression of the younger Lisa.
Paul Konody, a well-known art critic, described the Raphael sketch in 1914.
“There is, in the collection of old master drawings at the Louvre an original pen drawing by Raphael, which is reproduced in Muntz’s great work on Leonardo, and which is generally admitted to be a memory sketch by Raphael of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Now this memory sketch is framed at both sides by two columns of which no trace is found in the Paris ‘Mona Lisa’. These columns appear in the identical place in the Earlier Isleworth picture and are of immense value in the harmonious balance of the composition.”
(Source: Big Book, page 18)
Another contemporary historical reference that tied the earlier Mona Lisa to a specific time and place is in the writing of Agostino Vespucci. Vespucci was the secretary to Niccolo Machiavelli, the Second Chancellor of the Signoria. In a curious notation in the margins of a work by Cicero, Vespucci noted that Leonardo was painting a picture of Lisa del Giocondo at the same time as he was planning a monumental fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari. This notation only recently came to light, and it helps to fix the creation of the earlier Mona Lisa firmly in Leonardo’s timeline.
History of the Earlier Mona Lisa
Leonardo died in May 1519, likely due to a stroke. After his death, his student and collaborator Salai received the painting.
The painting appeared in two works of art history in the decades directly following Salai’s death. The famous historian Vasari describes the unfinished portrait in 1550. In 1584, another art historian described the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo as distinct from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. This is the last historical trace of the painting before its reemergence in England in the seventeenth century.
The Painting’s English History
An English nobleman named James Marwood acquired the painting in 1778. He hung the painting in his Somerset manor. It reemerged in 1858 for auction.
The painting was rediscovered in Somerset in 1913 by the famous critic, Hugh Blaker. Blaker brings the painting to Isleworth. Under Blaker, scholarship on the painting’s origins began.
A great deal of research has taken place in the century since the painting was rediscovered. Both connoisseurship and art history have been shown to attribute the painting directly to Leonardo. Scientific and historical studies have shown that the painting is genuine, placed firmly in Leonardo’s canon.
Understanding the Two Paintings
Any study of the Louvre Mona Lisa is incomplete without considering the Isleworth painting. Since Leonardo most likely used the earlier painting as a study for his later work, studying both versions of the painting is a must.
The earlier Mona Lisa will continue to reward scholars and art lovers with new revelations about its history and origins.