The art world–well, a bit of it–was left reeling this weekend when it was revealed that the notorious (convicted) art forger Shaun Greenhalgh has claimed that the famous (but controversial) portrait known as La Bella Principessa is not a portrait of Bianca Sforza made by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1490s, but is, in fact, a portrait of Sally the checkout girl from a Co-op somewhere in Bolton and dated to the 1970s. 1978, to be precise.
The picture’s uncertain status rests on its sketchy provenance; or, more appropriately, distinct lack of provenance. Nothing at all is known for certain about the drawing prior to 1955. At that point it was apparently owned by the art restorer Giannino Marchig, who in ’55 married Jeanne. When Giannino died, his widow inherited the drawing, who subsequently hung it on the wall of her study and who later consigned it to Christie’s New York for sale in 1998. There it was sold for $21’850 with the title Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress and attributed to a 19th-century German artist. The buyer was the American art dealer Kate Ganz, who kept hold of it until 2007 when she sold it on again for a break even price.
The buyer in 2007 had a hunch that the drawing might be a Leonardo; and, indeed, the first time that a scholarly connection was forged between the drawing and Leonardo, as far as I understand it, arose post-2007. To be precise it was 2008-9, when Cristina Geddo published a study of the sheet in which she, for the first time (again I might be wrong), suggested that the drawing is by Leonardo’s hand. The evidence she assembled was stylistic and technical: several aspects of the style of drawing points to Leonardo, such as the left-handed hatching (Leonardo was, as nearly everybody knows, left handed); and Geddo was able to establish that the “trois crayons” technique of the drawing, which is to say a drawing made by using a combination of red, white and black chalk, is something that Leonardo could’ve learned from Jean Perréal, who was in Milan at the same time Leonardo in the 1490s, was proficient in the “trois crayons” technique, and who Leonardo names as a source of technical information in the famous Codex Atlanticus.
In the meantime, Paris’s Lumière Technology performed digital scans of the sheet that were later studied in 2009 by fingerprint aficionado Peter Paul Biro, who reckoned that he could not only discern a fingerprint in the upper left edge of the sheet but that he could actually compare this favourably with a fingerprint, supposedly Leonardo’s, on the Vatican’s St Jerome in the Wilderness.
Laying the fingerprint theory to one side–which has since been disparaged as wishful thinking at best–Geddo’s thesis did receive a resounding endorsement from none other than Prof. M. Kemp, who is emeritus professor in Art History at Oxford and well-established Leonardo expert. Kemp spent 2 years researching the drawing alongside Lumière Technology’s Pascal Cotte, and together they published a book on it in 2010: La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman. It is Kemp in the 2010 book who was responsible for not only entrenching the view that the drawing could be Leonardo’s, but also for naming the sheet “A Beautiful Princess”. Kemp is also responsible for coming up with the idea that the sitter was Bianca Sforza who, though not actually a princess, was the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan who was something of a maecenas of Leonardo’s, and who, in 1496, married (at the tender age of 13 or thereabouts) one of her father’s military top dogs and another Leonardo’s patrons, Galeazzo Sanseverino. Kemp and Pascal thus offered an identity for the sitter, who was intimately connected with Leonardo through both her father and husband, and also offered a tantalisingly attractive addition to the sheet’s plausible provenance. Kemp and Pascal’s additional evidence is hefty, concerning the style, technique, iconography, and dynamic execution of the drawing (that is to say there is pentimenti, which often betrays the hand of an artist enrapt by the creative process rather than the servile hand of the copyist or forger), as well as probable dates for the drawing’s materials, support and so on, which they say are at least 250 years old.
Kemp and Pascal also ventured that the sheet was probably once bound in a book, or codex, perhaps containing poetry, which is exactly the kind of thing that the Sforza family might have commissioned to mark key events in Sforza family history, such as a birth, marriage or death. Slightly later, in 2011, Kemp and Pascal pursued this theory more vehemently, adducing specific evidence in in order to demonstrate that the drawing was probably once bound in a copy of Giovanni Simonetta’s La Sforziada that is now in Warsaw. La Sforziada was originally made in the mid-1470s to celebrate and honour the life and accomplishments of Francesco Sforza, who was Ludovico’s father, and the Sforza family more generally. La Sforziada was copied several times therafter–copies are extant not only in Warsaw but also London, Paris, and Florence–and it is thought by Pascal, Kemp and others that the Warsaw version had been presented to Galeazzo Sanseverino in 1496 on the occasion of his marriage to Bianca Sforza, complete with a drawing of her by no less a figure than Leonardo. It is thought that this sheet, now known as La Bella Principessa, was cut out from the codex during the process of rebinding the Warsaw Sforziada. You can read more of this argument, which is really rather detailed and, I think, plausible, here.
Kemp and Pascal in other words assembled considerable connoisseurial and scientific evidence to support a link between the drawing and Leonardo, and hit upon a plausible addition to the sheet’s regrettably scanty provenance. Identifying the sitter is good going–a bit of a coup, even.
So far so good…
But now all this has been cast into doubt by Greenhalgh, who claims–in a forthcoming book, snippets of which have already come out–that he produced the drawing. He says that he used an old English book to source vellum that was old enough to dupe the scientists, and likewise used carefully sourced organic materials to get the medium right so as to dupe both the scientists and the connoisseurs. He also says that he mounted the drawing on a panel made from an old school desk, again to give the impression of age. He finally claims that his model was a certain Sally, who worked in a Co-op in Bolton in the late ’70s–which is a world away from Bianca Sforza, 1490’s Milanese noblewoman (which isn’t to deride Co-op workers everywhere, as I happen to be very fond of the staff in my local Co-op!).
Anyway the story has provoked all kinds of responses in the media. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones labels the experts, including, I assume, Kemp, ‘gullible’ in his report on the story. He basically thinks that Greenhalgh is lying, but that it’s not by Leonardo either–a 17th-century pastiche, perhaps? Bendor Grosvenor sort of agrees, though he refrains from dubbing the Leonardo specialists ‘gullible’.
For his part, Martin Kemp unsurprisingly rubbishes the story as ‘ridiculous’ on his own very good Blog:
The silly season for Leonardo never stops. This now applies as much to the profile portrait on vellum, the portrait of Bianca Sforza known as La Bella Principessa, as it does to the Mona Lisa. The latest in the Sunday Times is the hilarious claim from the convicted forger Shaun Greenhalgh that he forged the portrait in 1978. He is effectively promoting his forthcoming book. There are many reasons why the story is ridiculous. I give just three for the moment.
1) We have lead isotope dating undertaken by the University of Pavia that shows the white pigment in the sitter’s cheek to be a minimum age of 250 years old. This means that it is not a recent forgery;
2) If someone fakes a Leonardo why do they not promote it as a Leonardo? There was no suggestion from 1978 to 2007 that it was by Leonardo.
3) Obviously anyone with a decent level of technical knowledge can read what Pascal Cotte, myself and other scholars have published and say, “that’s how I did this or that”. But many of the “thises” and “thats” were not known in 1978. A nice case in point is the hand-print technique in the flesh tones as revealed by Pascal’s multi-spectral analysis, a technique that we did not know about until the 1980s.
Faced with the pigment dating, Greenhalgh then claims that he used “organic” materials of appropriate age, including “iron-rich clays” he dug up. You cannot obtain lead-based pigments (non-organic) this way. No forger in 1978 could have anticipated the recent high-tech tests against which he would have to protect his creation.
The plus side of all this is that it provides another picturesque story for the book I am writing called Living with Leonardo, to be published by Thames and Hudson. Ha Ha!
Kemp is obviously not fazed. But when it comes to what I make of all this? Well, I find Greenhalgh’s story hard to swallow.
Greenhalgh, as Grosvenor points out, would have produced this drawing, if his story is true, during his late teens. So we have to wonder whether he really could have had the foresight then to get the “right” vellum, and to go out of his way to get the “right” materials, in order to produce a drawing that he would then quietly dispose of without naming Leonardo–wouldn’t a forger have wanted to get rid of it as a Leonardo from the off?–, only to then let almost 4 decades pass by before claiming that the drawing, which had since been attached to Leonardo, is, in fact, by him? Could Greenhalgh really have anticipated as a teenager drawing in a Bolton Co-op that a renowned Leonardo expert and his scientist friend would, decades later, subject that drawing, meticulously forged by him, to scientific scrutiny in order to prove that the drawing is a Leonardo, only for the forger himself to then be able to declare that they are wrong, and that he set out, all those years ago and armed with the “right materials” and a pinch, it seems, of prophetic foresight, to lead them astray? This just seems a bit too farfetched for me to believe. And it doesn’t ring true for how art forgers are supposed to operate.
Then there’s the problem that Jeanne Marchig says that her husband already owned the drawing when they married in 1955–which is some 20 years before Greenhalgh is supposed to have produced it. I think this must mean that the onus is placed on Greenhalgh himself to resolve this inconsistency. I suppose that some might try to cast suspicion over the Marchigs themselves, since Giannino was a proficient draughtsman himself and was very familiar with Leaonrdo’s work (in 1976 he undertook major conservation work on the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, then owned by the Wildenstein’s, for example). But you can’t just go around outing forgers willy-nilly. And even if you tried, this still wouldn’t square Greenhalgh’s claim: they, the Marchigs, say the drawing existed in ’55 (Mr Marchig, I read, believed the drawing to be a Ghirlandaio, a view which his wife shared), whereas the forger says it only came into being 2 decades later, in 1978.
And then I’m not really all that convinced by those who say that the drawing doesn’t look Leonardoesque enough. Kemp’s learned and trained eye for Leonardo wouldn’t have been aroused by a drawing it it didn’t look right in the first place (Kemp, I read somewhere, has photos of putative Leonardos land on his doormat all the time, so is used to separating the wheat from the chaff–otherwise he’d spend his life chasing after dud works). Still, The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones calls the drawing a “flat, dead and dull painting” (despite the fact it’s not a painting, per se) and concluded it is an “ugly pastiche”. As a result Jones is “absolutely certain” that is isn’t a Leonardo. He adds:
This really is a sorry tale, a revelation of how the most famous and justly revered artist in the world has become the centre of an inflated industry where everything than can remotely be connected with him is hyped to insane degrees of exaggeration or wishful thinking.
But, in response to Jones, I’d say at least two things.
The first is that isn’t this the same Jones that bought into the recent, equally sensational revelation that the bronze Panther Riders are “by Michelangelo”? I’ve said my bit on that before (here and here) but in short I’m not convinced. And based on that I’d say that Jones is perhaps exercising double standards by lampooning those who favour the attribution of “The Beautiful Princess” to Leonardo on the basis that it’s wishful thinking driven by the desire to attach Leonardo’s name to anything, yet is prepared to endorse the equally dubious and o.t.t. claims that the ungainly Panther Riders are by Leonardo’s just-as-famous rival.
And second I’d want to know what it is, exactly, that makes this drawing “flat”, “dead”, “dull” and an “ugly pastiche”? I don’t think it’s ugly–I actually find it quite charming, if not captivating, if not beautiful! OK, ugliness is a matter of opinion (though I don’t think anyone in their right mind could call this drawing ugly!), so getting to Jones’s real point, it seems to be the case that he thinks that Leonardo couldn’t possibly have produced a portrait that is so, I guess, standoffish: “The real giveaway is the total absence of an emotional dynamic between this young woman and Leonardo da Vinci. She just sits there, waiting, as if she was posing in a passport photobooth. There is no chemistry and no sense of personality.” But I think that what is actually happening here is that Jones is clinging on to the old Mona Lisa chichés, which underly his bold conviction that there’s no way this drawing is a Leonardo. This is all the “Leonardo liked to have a close, special bond with his sitters” and “there’s always a psychological connection” stuff, which is, as it goes, the kind of stuff that always makes me cringe (in the same way that anybody who waxes lyrical about van Gogh slicing his ear off makes me want to slice off mine, etc.). But what Jones perhaps ignores is that: a) Leonardo made portraits that don’t have a Mona Lisa-ness about them and come close to La Bella Principessa (e.g. the profile portrait below, of Isabella d’Este, which is (I think?) probably by Leonardo and, coincidentally, dates from about the same period as La Bella and pretty much approximates the “trois crayons” technique); and b) perhaps the artist’s hands were tied by whichever of the Sforzas commissioned it, since the Sforzas (and other nobles at the time) harboured a preference for the ennobling bust-length, profile-view portrait, which is most famously evinced by Piero della Francesa’s famous Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza (but the Sforza preference is also evidenced by other Sforza portraits produced by Bonifazio Bembo, Domenico dei Cammei, Pisanello, Ambrogio de Predis, Domenico Rosselli etc. etc.).
So we can’t say that Leonardo simply didn’t do portraits like La Bella Principessa, because he did and, in any case, even if he didn’t, it’s conceivable that the Sforzas might have asked him to, based on Sforza portraits that were already knocking around (and it’s not true to imagine that Leonardo was never constrained by a patron’s demands–the whole “Leonardo the genius did whatever he liked” idea doesn’t ring true…!).
In short I don’t know for certain whether the drawing is or is not a Leonardo. The reader of this post is free to click on the various links included in this post and weigh things up for themselves. I think there’s a chance it could be, and I don’t buy those claims that it simply isn’t Leonardo enough to look at. The scientific evidence tells us it’s definitlely old (Kemp dismisses, rightly, Greengalgh’s claim that he sourced organic materials in order to get materials that would mislead the scientists), and so it cannot be the case that La Bella Principessa was made in the Bolton Co-op in the 1970s. Worst case scenario is that it’s a 17th-century work; but I think that we cannot simply dismiss Kemp’s careful findings and accuse Kemp et al. of being gullible. Certainly I’m disinclined to simply pay obeisance to a convicted forger over a respected art historian. The former, we remember, made a living for himself fooling the world, and who may well now be merely muddying the waters simply because he can (with commercial gain to boot!).
The final sting in the tail for me comes from the uncomfortable closeness that exists between the journalist that broke this story, the forger, the forger’s new book and the same journalist’s company that is distributing said forger’s book. It was Waldemar Janusczcak who broke this story in The Sunday Times, and it is Janusczcak’s company ZCZ Editions that has published Greenhalgh’s book, which is basically a memoir that the he wrote whilst serving a prison sentence for art forgeries. Perhaps Kemp has a point when he says that the way the story has come out reeks of publicity… I’ll just leave that there for you to think about.