Earlier version of da Vinci's Mona Lisa to be shown in Singapore

A younger-looking version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa will smile her enigmatic smile in Singapore by year’s end, allowing gawkers to puzzle up close over her authenticity.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa will go on display at The Arts House from Dec 16 till Feb 11 next year.

It was discovered in 1913 in the Somerset home of a British aristocrat by an art collector and speculated to be an earlier portrait of a young Lisa del Giocondo, the woman in da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Singapore is the first stop of the Leonardo da Vinci’s “Earlier Mona Lisa” exhibition, which subsequently will travel to Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Australia.

Accompanying the portrait will be an interactive multimedia exhibition detailing the discovery of the work that has come to be known as the “Earlier Mona Lisa” and how the geometrical principles applied by the Italian Renaissance master are the same in both paintings. The Earlier Mona Lisa shows a younger woman in similar garb and pose against a markedly different background.The Swiss non-profit organiser, The Mona Lisa Foundation, is expecting at least 1,000 visitors a day to the show.

“We wanted to hold its global premiere in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities,” says the foundation’s general-secretary Joel Feldman, citing Singapore’s “well-developed infrastructure for the arts” and its population’s “growing interest in visual arts and culture”.

At a media preview on Thursday at the high-security Singapore FreePort, where the painting has been stored since January this year, light falls softly on the painting in a bare room. The effect is mesmerising.

In the stillness of the space, it is impossible not to be taken in by the rosy porcelain skin, limpid brown eyes and fine auburn hair, which bear a remarkable likeness to the more famous piece found at The Louvre in Paris.

The painting grabbed the world’s attention when it was first presented to the media in 2012 by the foundation.

After its discovery in an English manor by art collector Hugh Blaker just before World War I, the painting was shipped to the United States. In 1915, an art historian, John Eyre, published a monograph arguing that it is an earlier Mona Lisa by da Vinci. He expanded the monograph into a book in 1926.

The painting was bought in 1962 by a gallerist, Dr Henry Pulitzer, and kept in a Swiss vault for decades before it was acquired by an international consortium in 2008.

The foundation was established in 2010 to research and exhibit the painting. It says that studies have shown that da Vinci painted the work in 1503, but left it unfinished. In 1513, he starting another painting, commissioned by Giuliano de Medici, which is the one now hanging in The Louvre.

Experts, however, have disputed the scientific findings supporting the foundation’s claims. Among the more vocal of these critics have been Oxford University art history professor Martin Kemp, who has questioned the reliability of carbon dating tests used to determine when the Earlier Mona Lisa was painted. He has also been quoted as saying that he knows of no records of da Vinci having painted on canvas. The Earlier Mona Lisa is painted on canvas, while the Louvre’s Mona Lisa is on wood. Some six million people view the painting at The Louvre each year.

Mr Feldman of the Mona Lisa Foundation is well aware of and openly addresses the controversy surrounding its painting.

“If this is a copy, I’d like to ask a copy of what?” he asks pointing to historical evidence that this painting pre-dates the more famous portrait.

He also says among the 27 experts that have published opinions on the Earlier Mona Lisa’s attribution, there is only really one vocal critic, noted art historian Dr Kemp.

“It should be noted that he (Dr Kemp) had already expressed the opinion that there could only be one Mona Lisa before any of the findings and newly published information regarding the Earlier Mona Lisa were known. In view of this, it is likely that he could not look at the said information with complete objectiveness.”

He adds: “Perhaps most significantly it has been scientifically shown that Leonardo painted the faces of the Louvre and earlier versions. As a result, it would appear that any expert who denies the earlier version is therefore denying that Da Vinci painted the portrait now hanging in the Louvre.”

Mr Feldman adds that Dr Kemp and two other critics, who have questioned the authenticity of the painting as a precursor to the Mona Lisa, have declined several invitations by the foundation to view the painting.

Present at the preview was noted Dutch-born, US-based author Jean-Pierre Isbouts, who had been invited to speak about the painting, but is not otherwise associated with the foundation.

He says he was “emotionally” struck by the painting when he first saw it: “There was the obvious freshness as it has not been exposed to the elements. It is so alive. When you study both paintings in detail, the question is: Who else could have done it? The likeness, the symmetry, the luminosity, it is all there.”

deepikas@sph.com.sg