Double take at the Walters

'Mona Lisa' copy provides insights about the original

Object Lesson

March 14, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the history of art and a jewel of the collection at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

So what's it doing in Baltimore?

That's the question visitors to the Walters Art Museum have been asking this month as they enter the museum's Renaissance and Baroque galleries and spot the famous lady smiling down at them.

Actually, as a wall label notes, it's not the "real" Mona Lisa.

Instead, it is a copy -- albeit a very good one -- painted by an unknown French artist probably sometime in the 16th or 17th century. Museum founder Henry Walters purchased it at an auction in London in 1905.

The Walters' Mona Lisa, which will remain on view through the end of April, illustrates important aspects of Leonardo's art, says Morten Steen Hansen, the museum's assistant curator of Renaissance and Baroque art.

For one, he adds, it "testifies to the great fame of the image" even in its own time -- a celebrity that has persisted to the present day and can be seen in everything from popular novels like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to refrigerator magnets and computer screen savers.

Moreover, the Walters' copy is a more complete version of Leonardo's image than the one in the Louvre, whose sides were cut down sometime after the artist's death in 1519.

"Our copy shows two columns on either side of the portrait, indicating the Mona Lisa is actually sitting on a balcony," Hansen said. "In the Louvre painting the columns are barely visible, so you don't get that sense of being on the balcony."

The Walters' copy also provides a clear example of Leonardo's famous sfumato, or "smoke-like" painting technique, in which transitions from light to dark are rendered almost invisibly.

"Leonardo used that technique particularly around her mouth and her eyes, those strangely shadowed areas that are the most expressive parts of the face," Hansen said. "It's because these features have been so finely shaded through this spectacular technique that people always remark on the mysterious quality of her smile."

Of course, there are plenty of differences between the Walters' copy and the original. While the copyist was a talented painter, he was no match for Leonardo.

"Leonardo had a technique that was unsurpassed," Hansen said. "Our artist was gifted, but not on the same level of mastery. Nobody was."

In the original, for example, the landscape behind the Mona Lisa, is a complex composition of woods, water, winding paths, forbidding rock formations and sky.

"Leonardo was a scientist and very interested in the workings of nature," Hansen said. "In our copy, the background is more generalized, so you don't get that amazing detail or the [aerial] perspective where the distances of objects are indicated by changes in color.

"Leonardo thought that in nature all light is reflected and when you look at something at a distance it blurs to an extent. So he gave up sharp lines. We're used to that today, but if you hold up [his painting] to a Botticelli, for example, you realize how revolutionary it was."

The museum is at 600 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students. Call 410-547-9000 or visit www.thewalters.org.

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