In Brief

A Collector’s Portfolio Turns Up an Unknown Leonardo da Vinci Sketch

The drawing stood out to a curator at a Paris auction house, who, after consulting other experts, determined that it is indeed a work by the hand of the Renaissance artist.

Study for a San Sebastian in a landscape (c. 1482) attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (all images ©TAJAN)

A double-sided drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, believed to be his study for a long-lost painting of St. Sebastian, has resurfaced in France. The pen-and-ink illustration, measuring about 7 1/2 by 5 inches, emerged from the collection of a book-loving Frenchman, as the New York Times reported, and was brought to the attention of the auction house Tajan by his son (who has preferred to be anonymous) last March. The work stood out to Thaddée Prate, Tajan’s director of Old Master pictures, amid the man’s portfolio of 14 drawings; after consulting other experts, Prate determined that it is indeed a work by the hand of the Renaissance artist.

Dated to around 1482, the drawing’s front depicts a full figure of Saint Sebastian tied to a tree surrounded by faint suggestions of a surrounding landscape. Yet, the image is not a straightforward religious depiction: the martyr’s twisted pose and defined, tense muscles exemplify Leonardo’s skilled portrayal of and fascination with human anatomy; the figure even appears to have at least three legs — one of which seems to reveal a tibia-like bone.

The reverse of the c. 1482 drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, showing two scientific studies

The drawing’s reverse, too, indicates its maker was a man intrigued by science. It presents two diagrams showing the path of candlelight and the shadows cast, accompanied by notes in loopy script. Leonardo is well-known for his studies of optics; the notes and drawings also suggested to Patrick de Bayser, an independent dealer Prate consulted, that they were executed by a left-handed artist — and yes, the Italian draftsman was a leftie.

A third expert affirmation of the drawing’s authenticity arrived from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of Italian and Spanish drawings, Carmen C. Bambach. She organized the museum’s 2003 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, which included two similar drawings associated with what experts believe is a lost painting of St. Sebastian. Leonardo’s “Codex Atlanticus,” a bound set of drawings and writings, lists the completion of eight St. Sebastians. One, owned by a museum in Hamburg, also features optical studies and notes in similar handwriting on its reverse. As the Times reported, Bambach considers this newly discovered illustration to be the most refined of the three. Tajan has now valued it at 15 million euros (~$15.8 million) but has not yet announced any information about its sale.

According to Bambach, this finding is the first attributed Leonardo to appear in this medium in 16 years — in 2000, Sotheby’s held a sale of another double-sided sketch of Hercules “virtually unknown to Leonardo scholars,” as the Met, which now owns the work, put it. But a recent discovery by the British Library, in particular, makes one wonder just how many “lost” Leonardos are waiting identification by scholarly eyes: Earlier this year, conservators used multispectral imaging to reveal traces of a nude male figure; it appeared on a small section of a page in the artist’s Codex Arundel, forgotten as it was nearly invisible — erased by an anonymous hand five centuries ago.

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