April 10th, 2010

rotting doll.

Review: The American Leonardo by John Brewer

The American Leonardo
by John Brewer

In 1920, Andree and Harry Hahn stun the world by offering a painting by Leonardo da Vinci for sale.  With documentation dating back to the 17th century, they claim that La Belle Ferronnière is genuine.  Unfortunately, a nearly-identical portrait hangs in the Louve, and only one of them can be the original.  When prominent art dealer Joseph Duveen declares that the Hahn's painting is a copy, they turn right around and sue him.  Through the trial it becomes clear that more than just the Hahn's painting is being questioned; the entire system of art connoisseurship and provanance is under examination.   John Brewer, in his research over the case of the Hahn's La Belle Ferronnière also addresses the nature of art, aesthetic vs. scientific authentification, and many other issues that still loom large in the art market today.

As a student of art history, I found John Brewer's book to be quite interesting, if not exactly entertaining. It was a slow read; I could only read it in short bursts, and took over a month to complete it. The writing's dry, but it does cover a lot of territory. Brewer would introduce a man, for example, backtrack several years to tell his personal history and talents, sidestep to explain more about the man's field of expertise, and the history of that field, and then FINALLY come back and advance the main report about La Belle.

Ultimately, the book focuses on art criticism and its evolution throughout the 20th century rather than Leonardo Da Vinci and La Belle Ferronnière.  Very little is actually said about the painting. It's described a couple of times, and we are presented with some black-and-white photos...but that's it. All the drama focuses on its 20th-century owners and the fight to get it recognized as a legitimate da Vinci painting by "Big Art", the art historians and critics who time and time again dismiss it as a fake or a copy of the painting found at the Louve (another heavily disputed piece). If any scientific analysis was done on the painting during its various trips to different museums for studies, the results aren't really looked at.

When I read the book, I was disappointed at at the end because there was no definite resolution to the story. The American Leonardo ends with the painting, which had been on the market for decades but never sold, involved in a court battle for ownership. It seems a pity that Brewer couldn't wait another year to publish this book, as the eighty-plus years' attempt to sell La Belle was concluded at auction in January of 2010, when the painting sold for $1.5 million. But perhaps the publicity from the printing of this book helped drive the auction price? Who knows. All I know is that the story of La Belle as told in Brewster's book is unfinished, and as a reader that was very unsatisfying.

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