The Case of a ‘Celebrity Painting’ — Decoding the Restoration of ‘Salvator Mundi’
In 2017, a painting made headlines for being the most expensive in the world, having sold for USD 450.3 million at a high — profile auction(1). In 2018, the painting made headlines again, when it disappeared from the public sphere(2).
The painting in question is the artwork shown above, a 26 — inch high oil painting on walnut wood(3) that disappeared without a trace. Its exact whereabouts is still under speculation. All we know is that it was suddenly removed from the public sphere. The painting that has disappeared is titled ‘Salvator Mundi’, Latin for Saviour of the World(4). It is attributed to none other than Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master(5).
A panel of experts that had come together to determine the authenticity of this work could not reach a clear consensus on whether it was truly painted by Leonardo himself, by one of his disciples, or even an imitator! (6) Did it seem too far — fetched to them to attribute it to the great Renaissance Master? Surely one must leave room for doubt?
The painting, when found, was heavily overpainted(7). Surface cleaning revealed the full extent of damage to the image-making layers incurred over the years. Its restoration by conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini was met with some criticism, with some claiming that it has been over-restored. She is now being blamed for ‘Leonardising’ the original(8) a blasphemous charge to level against any conservator.
The general understanding of the term ‘Leonardising’ would mean to make it look more like a Leonardo painting through surface-level interventions such as overpainting. This implies that the person carrying out the overpainting also has to possess extraordinary painting skills on par with the master himself, does it not?
So if we are to say that Modestini ‘Leonardised’ the painting, is her skill equal to that of Leonardo? Shouldn’t she be acknowledged as a master akin to Leonardo? Shouldn’t her artworks, if she paints, also fetch quite a sum?
As an art conservation professional, I can say that most people with artist training can easily become adept at skills related to art conservation, however, that is not the norm the other way around. Though the skills required to execute overlap to an extent, art creation and art conservation are opposites in terms of intent — one seeks to create from a scratch while one seeks to preserve what has already been created. The first is one’s own expression while the second seeks to protect the legacy of another. Both are connected yet serve their own purpose.
So are the allegations leveled against Modestini true? The basic tenet that an art conservator follows is that of minimum and reversible intervention. As an art conservation professional who has worked in the field of easel painting conservation earlier, and looking at images available on the internet at hand, I can safely say that the restoration of this painting has not gone overboard. I am clarifying this point here for the general public, and it not a testament to the judgement and skills of such a senior conservator as Modestini, who has dedicated her life to this field. It is not my place to do so. This is just to inform the general public of my opinion regarding the matter at hand, that is, to present a conservation perspective to the general audience in order to aid understanding of the misunderstood aspects around its restoration process.
In the above image, one can see the extent of damage in the image-making layers exposed after surface cleaning. There appear to be losses at varying depths across layers, from large abrasions in paint layers to deeper losses in the paint and ground layers, and even in the wooden panel support. The image shown here depicts the painting amidst intervention. It is a general practice, by this stage, to stabilise the condition of the object. Any loose, flaking, or delaminating paint and ground layers appear to have been stabilised through a process called consolidation.
The deeper losses in the wooden panel appear to have been filled in with an inert filler material. They appear as the bright white areas in the image. Certain stains in the form of streaks are more apparent in the bottom quadrants of the painting.
Essentially, by the time it was shown to the panel of experts for authentication, the stabilisation of the painting had been carried out and the restoration process i.e. the specific process of retouching would have begun. If the losses were left as they are, it would actually attract the eye towards them and distract one from the actual image. Retouching or in-painting involves retouching only within the extent of the losses and not over the original image-making layers.
After this, direct intervention on the painting would have typically involved completely reintegrating the filled and abraded areas by retouching. The decision to partially retouch and cover the extra thumb of the right hand of the Saviour (change in composition termed as ‘pentimento’ seen in the above image) would have been taken at this stage. The painting may have been finally coated with a coat of varnish. This is a simple explanation of the overall process beyond the stage that the above image shows the painting in. However, there may have been many more intermediary stages to each process of the intervention.
A work of this stature would have called for the use of expensive yet best quality materials that are reversible. For example, conservation-grade pigments would have been used with a conservation — grade binder for retouching that would be mixed to best match the tone and luminosity of the existing colour palette; and that would not discolour for a long period of time. The coat of varnish serves not only as a final protective finish but also saturates the colours and imparts an even sheen to the painting. The saturation of colours could be interpreted as a change in the tonality of the colour palette. The varnish has also been chosen considering its final effect on the visual appearance. If a varnish was too matte or too glossy upon drying, the overall visual balance would change drastically which would completely alter the way a viewer experiences the painting.
Another concern that comes up over the restoration is that — “…it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face…”(9) Retouches, as a general rule of thumb, are always meant to be lighter in tone and duller in luminosity in order to easily direct the eye to the original paint layer. This serves to mask any visual breaks in the overall image caused due to damage and present a more completed version of the picture.
The retouching and varnish generally can be removed completely, including the inert fillers. The decision to apply a coat of varnish before carrying out the retouching may also have been taken; a measure to separate the retouching and original paint layers, so when one removes the varnish through solvent cleaning, the retouching also comes off with it easily. A final coat of varnish would then have been applied to bring the picture together. So even if there are fears about over restoration, it all can be removed if the decision is taken tomorrow to do so.
In my opinion, the decision to sufficiently mask the pentimento would have been taken as a mark of respect to the artist’s original intention and also present it in the way the artist would have wanted it to be seen i.e. with one thumb and not two. Retaining the thumb for posterity would be unnatural to the way the figure was originally intended to be viewed. Moreover, the iconographical and anatomical depiction of Christ would be inaccurate with two thumbs, considering the present generally understood aspects that identify Christ as Christ and not someone else.
Documentation and diagnostic analysis of the condition of the painting would have been carried out by the conservator and/or their team throughout the process of intervention. The pentimento, older retouching, new retouching, and varnish layer/s are visible through multispectral imaging (UV and IR imaging) post conservation. So one can actually view where the new retouching has been done post conservation! Detailed records would be available with the conservator, a copy typically with the client as well.
Another concern that is expressed comes across in the following quote — “It is completely different, in tone and feeling, from the smoky, ambiguous appearance of the painting today, after its full treatment…”(10) We have established earlier how a change in visual appearance post varnish application may be seen as a change in the tonality of the painting. The hazy appearance of the image corresponds with a painting technique called sfumato that Leonardo was considered a leading practitioner of. This may also help us to understand why the painting may have been attributed to him or his disciples, amongst myriad other reasons of course.
Conservation processes are well — thought out and controlled. It gives one an idea of how much study, thought, and experience goes behind conserving a painting well. Hence, the process is often slow as there are many considerations at every level that need to be sufficiently addressed to determine the nature and result of each intervention. This can’t be taken to mean that the entire or a major part of the painting has been overpainted because of the time taken.
We will never know how the painting looked when it was painting anew, the visual balance has been maintained at an optimal level which is based on the visuals of other classical and Master paintings available for reference. This can be corroborated with the fact that many who have viewed the painting claim that it has a ‘presence’(11) That could be interpreted as the efficacy of the original painting being restored. The power of the visual imagery created by the artist still shines through despite its age(12) and the extent of restoration. This evocation of feeling in the viewer may, in all probability, be a part of the intended message of the painting that the artist sought to convey to the viewer.
By now, I hope it is clear that “Leonardising” a painting is a highly unlikely result of its conservation and restoration processes. What else about this painting sets it apart from other portraits by Leonardo? Its composition differs compared to the usual composition preferred by the artist for his portraits. This painting was of an important religious figure depicted as a frontal bust, much akin to a static sculptural style. Leonardo’s other portraits are characterised as being essentially secular in nature and in contrappossto(13).
Also, it seems that for all its life, this painting has moved from the hands of one private owner to another. Again, a very rare case indeed, if we take into consideration the artist it is being attributed to. If the attribution is right, then it will be the only work from Leonardo’s oeuvre to be in private hands, and not an actual part of the collection of one of the leading museums of the world(14).
The implication of attributing the painting to Leonardo? Besides the fact that the world gains a masterpiece by an artist whose very few completed paintings survive; the appreciation in its price from 2005 to 2017, in a span of 12 years, went up by 44,881,325%!(15) (16) (17)The sudden removal of this painting from the public sphere by its current owner, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman who was to then bequeath the painting to the new Louvre at Abu Dhabi, UAE(18) is also one of the reasons which led many to believe that the painting was maybe not a Leonardo original.
A lot of contradicting facts regarding the story of its provenance and pricing across the ages emerge in other internet sources. However, for the sake of this discussion, sources with numbers that occur the most often have been taken into consideration.
According to currently circulating rumours, the painting is said to be locked away in a Swiss vault or aboard the Crown Prince’s private yacht The Serene(19). It would be unwise to do the latter, as high humidity, environmental fluctuations, and risk of shocks would pose a threat to the material safety of the painting, the aspect that actually retains the artist’s legacy.
The celebrities of today may or may not create controversies around themselves to remain in the spotlight. Salvator Mundi has remained in the spotlight essentially because of the life breathed into it by it’s creator, by the artist. And that is the power of the visual language and style developed by the artist himself. Indeed a case of a ‘Celebrity Painting’ which continues to remain mired in controversies, much like the celebrities of today; yet unlike them a silent spectator to the drama that unfolds around it.
(9) Jones, Jonathan. 2018. The Da Vince mystery: Why is his $540m masterpiece really being kept under wraps? The Guardian [Online] Accessed December 02, 2020.
(10) (11) Ibid
(12) christies.com — Considered to have been painted in the 1500s, according to Christie's, the auction house that facilitated the latest sale of this painting
(13) Cartwright, Mark. 2020. Leonardo da Vinci. Ancient History Encyclopaedia. Accessed on December 02, 2020.
(15) Jones, 2018 — It was bought by two New York dealers, Robert Simon, and partner, at a small scale auction in New Orleans for USD 1175 in 2005. They brought it to Modestini for restoration. The painting was bought by a representative of its present owner the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman at a Christie's public auction in New York in 2017. It sold for a whopping USD 450.3 million, making it the most expensive painting in the world
(16) A lot of contradicting facts regarding the story of its provenance and pricing across the ages emerge in other internet sources. However, for the sake of this discussion, sources with numbers that occur the most often have been taken into consideration.
(17) Appreciation value to be confirmed with the relevant professional and is mentioned here as an estimate
(18) Sebastian, Smee. 2019. The Louvre wants this $450 million ‘Leonardo’ in its big show. But its mystery owner appears to be balking. The Washington Post [Online] Accessed December 02, 2020.
(19) Schachter, Kenny. 2019. Where in the World is ‘Salvator Mundi’? Kenny Schachter reveals the Location of the Lost $450 Million Leonardo.” artnet news [Online] Accessed December 02, 2020.