You can buy a hand-painted oil-on-canvas Mona Lisa art reproduction from Bohemian Fine Art
Unveiled: early copy that reveals Mona Lisa as her creator intended
Oil painting Joshua Reynolds mistook for Leonardo's original to go on display
The oil painting that casually leans against the storage racks of Dulwich Picture Gallery sends a shiver up the spine. What is the Mona Lisa doing here, away from its bullet-proof glass case and its ever-attendant, jostling crowds of worshippers? In fact, this is an extremely good early copy of the Mona Lisa, about to go on display in
for the first time since 1902. It will provide a fascinating insight into what the original, which has deteriorated significantly, may once have looked like.
The copy is of such good quality that its onetime owner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, prolific collector and favourite portraitist to the Georgian super-rich, thought it was the real thing. And his hunch was backed up by the owners. When he made inquiries to a French official, he was told that the work that now hangs in the Louvre was "not esteemed or considered as the original".
Scholars agree that Reynolds's Mona Lisa - which was given to him in about 1790 by the Duke of Leeds, probably in exchange for one of his own self-portraits - is likely to have been painted by an anonymous French artist, perhaps traced from the original, a century after Leonardo da Vinci constructed his work between about 1503 and 1516.
"The original Mona Lisa," said Ian Dejardin, director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, "has lost a lot of its colour, which is why it has that dark-brown, honeyed quality to it." The deterioration is perhaps down to Leonardo's painstaking technique, which involved building up the paint in infinitely thin layers, over a matter of years; it is also covered by layers of varnish that have badly discoloured.
Reynolds's Mona Lisa, by contrast, made with more traditional techniques, has suffered less, and can give some indication of what the Leonardo may have looked like after a century's ageing. It still has a quite startlingly bright background, for instance - both the original and the copy would have used the expensive pigment lapis lazuli to create a bold sky-blue.
The clothing in the copy, now brown in the original, still has some colour, nearer to the yellow sleeves and dark-green gown that early descriptions of the Mona Lisa note - though Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford University and the leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci, warns that "early accounts can be a bit hit and miss".
The copy is a little wider than the original, with a pair of columns flanking the figure which are merely hinted at in Leonardo's oil painting. She is actually sitting in a room in front of a window, in the manner of renaissance portraits.
Some scholars argue this suggests that the original was cut down at some point, "perhaps to fit a good frame, on the whim of a king", according to Mr Dejardin. Others, including Professor Kemp, are sure that the Mona Lisa was not cut down. He is one of the few people alive to have seen the Mona Lisa without its frame. In the words of Michael Burrell, who has researched the painting for the journal Apollo, copyists may have been "unnerved by the daring way Leonardo had suggested the columns and so increased their width to create a more conventional frame".
Copies like this one would have been made, according to Mr Dejardin, as a primary means of reproducing a well-regarded work, which was clearly laborious before the days of photography. "A leading nobleman could ask for a copyist to go into the French royal collection to paint a version of the original, because there was no other practical way of seeing it. Or sometimes the king would commission copies to send as gifts."
There is an unusually high number of early copies of the Mona Lisa in existence, according to Prof Kemp, which suggests that the oil painting became well-known quite quickly: "It's rather remarkable to get an image of someone who wasn't famous, a anonymous Florentine woman, copied and copied like this," he said.
Despite its quality - Mr Dejardin calls it "a beautiful oil painting; whoever did it was a very serious artist" - it seems obvious to modern eyes that this is not the original. So how did Reynolds, a brilliant painter and apparent expert who had visited
to see old masters first-hand, make such a crashing mistake?
Mr Dejardin said: "Provenance and art history were then in their infancy. You would think it was obvious that people would know that the Mona Lisa in the king's cabinet was the original, because Leonardo brought it with him when he travelled to the French court. But although Leonardo has a legendary status he actually produced very little. People had only a vague idea of what the real thing looked like ... by the 1790s the real Mona Lisa, perhaps hanging in a murky room, probably looked rather ordinary."
The copy can give us clues as to what the original has lost. But it also succeeds in demonstrating the sheer magic of Leonardo's work. The copyist has made a reasonable stab at what Mr Dejardin calls "the greatest hands in art". But, as Mr Burrell has written, in the end it fails to "recreate the infinitely subtle gradations of luminous tones in the modelling of the face and hands".
According to Prof Kemp, who has also curated the current exhibition of Leonardo drawings at the
: "There's an intangible thing - when you look at a Leonardo drawing it couldn't be by anybody else. But part of the reason Leonardo is so hard to copy is technical. All the copies I've seen are quite thinly painted; that is, the surface imitates what they think Leonardo did.
"But we know from technical examinations of other Leonardo works that he worked by laying on thin, translucent veils of paint containing very little pigment and a lot of binder. That takes ages and ages, and it's terribly subtle. You could end up with a 'soup' of pigment and glazes, and it's not going to be worthwhile for a copyist to do even if they knew how to." Nonetheless, Prof Kemp reckons the Reynolds copy may have visitors to Dulwich doing a double-take. "It's rather a striking object," he said. "It will give people a real sense that the Mona Lisa was once a colorful oil painting. That she was not a submarine goddess, but a lively lady."
Da Vinci or not? Spot the difference
A tiny frill is visible on the bodice of the copy, which does not appear on the original. It is possible that the original once had such a frill. According to Professor Martin Kemp, such a detail would be the last to be applied by the painter, and the first to be lost in restoration work.
The copy is wider than the original, with flanking columns more fully suggested. Some speculate that the Mona Lisa was cut down at some point, perhaps to fit a frame. Others believe copyists were unnerved by the unconventional way in which Leonardo had cropped the columns, and gave it a more recognisable frame.
The original's sleeves, contemporary accounts suggest, were yellow, and the gown dark green. In the copy, the clothes still have more colour than the deteriorated original - and perhaps suggest the state of the Mona Lisa after a century's deterioration.
The most obvious difference between the copy and the original is the full, striking blue of the sky in the copy. Both the original and the copy would have used the expensive pigment lapis lazuli to create the tone, but the original's has faded.