Interviews

Leonardo Had Help: Oxford Art Historian Asserts New Attribution for ‘Salvator Mundi’

Matthew Landrus believes the painting, which Louvre Abu Dhabi bought at auction for $450.3 million in 2017, better resembles the work of Bernardino Luini, an assistant in Da Vinci’s studio.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Salvator Mundi" (c.1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 in.(65.7 x 45.7 cm) (image courtesy Christie's)
Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi” (c.1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 in.(65.7 x 45.7 cm) (image courtesy Christie’s)

Money has predominantly led most of the discussions surrounding attribution for Salvator Mundi” (c. 1500), the Renaissance painting from Milan whose connection to Leonardo da Vinci’s studio is certain if also vague. The question of how this painting (sold for $127.5 million in 2014) could nearly quadruple in price to $450.3 million in 2017 was inextricably linked to Christie’s ability to build consensus on what it billed as “one of fewer than 20 known paintings by Leonardo.” Assembling a team of experts, the auction house created a whirlwind of scholarship and publicity that silenced the majority of its critics until the final hours of the sale when a variety of academics and journalists spoke against the attribution.

One Leonardo expert who stayed quiet during the stormy debate was Oxford art historian Matthew Landrus, whose upcoming book, Leonardo da Vinci, is an update to his earlier 2006 edition that has sold over 200,000 copies in fifteen languages.

Landrus made headlines this week for his controversial appraisal of “Salvator Mundi,” which he says is probably between only 5% and 20% painted by Leonardo. He notes that the rest of the painting is likely the work of Bernardino Luini, a studio assistant of Da Vinci. Hyperallergic spoke with Landrus about his shocking assertion.

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Hyperallergic: Who is Bernardino Luini and what makes him a more likely painter of “Salvator Mundi” than Leonardo himself?

Matthew Landrus: Born in c.1480, Luini was a painter who worked across Venice and Milan until his death in about 1532. His earliest training actually occurred at the Lombardy capital’s Duomo before traveling to Veneto from about 1504–1508. When he returned to Milan, he became heavily influenced by both Leonardo and Raphael. He’s associated with Leonardo’s studio somewhere between 1509–1512, which encapsulates the same period of time when “Salvator Mundi” was created. His work shows an approach similar to the painting, which he actually produced a couple of examples of himself.

Luini was an artist who valued painting for whatever aesthetics his specific audience wanted. In Veneto, he would paint in the Venetian style. (We actually have a 1507 painting of his done in this style.) When he gets to Lombardy, his style becomes inextricably associated with Milanese taste, including darker backgrounds and figures emerging from that space with landscapes sometimes in the background — landscapes often seen from an open window.

In the 2018 edition of my book, I’m actually agreeing with people that “Salvator Mundi” is partially in Leonardo’s hand. The new thing that I’m saying is that Luini has the best comparable examples, like “Christ Among the Doctors,” in which you can see real similarities. One thing that isn’t clear from other reports is that I’m not trying to challenge Christie’s or UAE. This is about what’s new in Leonardo studies. I think the question of how we attribute authorship to the painting is itself an issue.  I think we need to clarify that the market is another animal compared to art history.

H: But why wait to speak up about “Salvator Mundi” and its attribution, months after the work’s sale?

ML: Simply put, I was recently asked what the updates were in my forthcoming book and I gave a list of updates. One updated is a reference to a Luini painting in relation to “Salvator Mundi.“Both were produced at the same time in Leonardo’s studio. I’ve reserved comment thus far because there were already so many arguments on either side of the debate. But I do think people agree with me. It’s an art historian’s job to look at aesthetic and connoisseurial issues seriously.

H: What does it exactly mean when you attribute “Salvator Mundi” to Leonardo and his studio assistants like Luini?

ML: Apparently, it means more than I anticipated. I thought it just meant that I’m uncertain about the painting being entirely Leonardo’s. Is it a fully autographed Leonardo? I can see other elements in it that don’t necessarily seem to be his. That doesn’t mean that they are “worse” elements. It’s very good work but it’s not necessarily by Leonardo in what we traditionally consider his hand.

To see studio assistance in the artist’s paintings after 1500 is not a radical idea. To say that Leonardo proudly put his name on the painting is also appropriate. If you produce work in your studio, then you put your name on it and claim it as your work. Because Leonardo came up with the design, produced drawings for it, set up the tracery formatting and the crystal ball — he started and finished the painting. By the standards of his day, “Salvator Mundi” is a Leonardo. By our standards, however, we want to look at who assisted him. That’s all I’m saying. It shows elements of Luini.

H: Besides Luini, what other artists do we know that were working in Leonardo’s studio?

ML: We know a number of people attributed to the studio, actually, including Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. He was an amazing painter, but Boltraffio’s style was so different, which is why I don’t attribute him to “Salvator Mundi.” Another is Francesco Melzi. There’s also Salaì to whom we can contribute another “Salvator Mundi.” (It’s very different in style, though. Not up to the quality of a Leonardo painting, but it’s still very nice.) What I should probably do for people is line up all the examples of “Salvator Mundi” and ask them what they think.

H: Does the drama surrounding your assertion underplay the merits of being associated with Luini? Does it undervalue the artist’s skills vis-à-vis Leonardo?

ML: That’s an interesting point. I’m actually praising Luini as being rather sophisticated, but people interpret that as, “Oh! It’s not good enough to be a Leonardo.” Sometimes, I think that studio work can be better than the master’s contributions. That’s the big question: Does the painting have the intellectual and visual sophistication of a Leonardo? I’m saying it does, even if it’s partially Luini because that artist brought himself up to the level of Da Vinci.

And one can see that Luini mastered painting quite early in his life. He was making a name for himself in Milan from 1509–1520 and long thereafter. That’s a good chunk of time when his paintings were very Leonardesque. Another argument is that his studio work is — in some cases — more Leonardesque than Leonardo himself.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.

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