This is the Islesworth Mona Lisa.
For anyone with even a passing familiarity with DaVinci’s masterpiece it is obvious that this is not the portrait that currently hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris. For one, the woman is much younger than the iconic Mona Lisa of DaVinci. There are other differences as well. The canvas is wider and we can see more of the framing pillars behind the figure. The background is different.
The Isleworth Mona Lisa was discovered just before World War 1 by an art collector named Hugh Blaker in the home of a Somerset nobleman. Blaker bought the painting and took it to his studio in Isleworth, London, from which it takes its name.
Now, the appearance of a Mona Lisa is not that unusual. Many have painted copies of DaVinci’s portrait. It is one of the most reproduced images in the world, after all. But there is a twist.
Blaker knew that Leonardo had started to paint Mona Lisa in 1503, but “left it unfinished”. This is recounted by Leonardo’s early biographer Giorgio Vasari. However, a fully finished painting of a “certain Florentine lady” surfaces again in 1517, shortly before Leonardo’s death and in his private possession. The latter painting almost certainly is the same that now hangs in the Louvre.
So what happened to the earlier attempt? Well, Blaker figured that the Isleworth Mona Lisa was that earlier attempt. He and other supporters claimed it to be the unfinished Mona Lisa, made at least partially by Leonardo and originally handed over to its commissioner. That would mean that the Louvre Mona Lisa was a later version of the portrait made by Leonardo for his own use.
The Isleworth painting has changed hands a few times between then and now. It is currently owned by a Zurich group calling itself the Mona Lisa Foundation. They unveiled the painting recently and reiterated the claim that it is an earlier DaVinci version of the Mona Lisa portrait.
That claim, unsurprisingly, has provoked a number of reactions in the art world. Some have come forward to denounce the Isleworth painting as a forgery.
So what are we to make of this younger and prettier Mona Lisa? Is it an authentic Mona Lisa? Should it replace the portrait hanging in the Louvre? Wouldn’t that be an appropriate comment on the age in which we live? The older, mature face gets replaced by one younger and prettier. That would be a sad story.
But here’s a better story, and maybe a sadder one. Did Leonardo DaVinci fall in love with the young, pretty wife of Francesco del Giocondo when he was commissioned to paint her portrait? He would have been 51 in 1503 when Lisa Gherardini sat for him. She would have been 24 years old, a young wife, making a home with her wealthy cloth merchant husband, their second child newly born.
Was the old painter sentimental enough to fall in love with her lovely smile? The smile is certainly more evident in this earlier portrait. Did it haunt him through the years? Did young Lisa’s face stay in his mind, aging gracefully in DaVinci’s imagination until he was compelled to commit her likeness to canvas once more years later, older, sadder perhaps, with an enigmatic smile? Did he paint it from memory or did she sit for him again, one more time, years later — just for him this time?
Did he know he was painting his masterpiece?
The later portrait, the one in the Louvre, was called by DaVinci “La Giaconda”, which means “The Jocular One” A pun, perhaps? A play on the name Giocondo? Or was DaVinci obfuscating to hide the fact that he had the portrait of another man’s wife in his possession? Was it love that compelled Davinci to paint La Giaconda? Was it a great and unfulfilled love that immortalized a young Florentine woman to the point that she is now arguably one of the most recognized faces in history?
We will never know, of course. This is just a story. But it is an appealing idea, isn’t it? That it was love — not money, or vanity, or the lust for fame or power — but love that was responsible for the most famous painting in the world.