The last ten years have seen the publication of several books on the travels and travails of famous art coveted by art collectors and thieves. The Hare with Amber Eyes traces a Jewish family’s collection of Japanese netsuke from Japan to Europe and through the Nazis and beyond. The Lady in Gold is a Nazi art theft saga of the famous Gustav Klimt portrait. Plunder recounts Napoleon’s theft of the Veronese painting, Marriage at Cana, from a Venice church to populate his Paris Museum. Now comes What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait.
Around 1490, 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani sat for her portrait before Leonardo da Vinci. The painting was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan; Cecilia was his mistress. Ludovico was captivated not only by her beauty, but also by her talents in poetry and music. In her lap is a white ermine (supposedly added at a later phase in the painting); it is a figure representing the duke, who was called ermellino bianco. The animal not only represents his political power and viciousness, but also symbolizes pregnancy and childbirth leading art historians to believe that Cecilia was pregnant at the time. She later gave birth to their son Cesare.
The painting hung in Ludovico’s private rooms when he married 15-year-old Beatrice while Cecilia and Cesare lived in the same building. After Beatrice forced them to leave, Cecilia took the painting with her. After her death, the painting was lost for more than two centuries.
Around 1800, the Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski discovered the painting when he was on tour of Napoleonic Italy. He gave the portrait to his mother, Princess Izabella Dorota Czartoryski, who kept it in the family for generations. An avid art collector, she founded a museum to store her most prized possessions and other European antiquities. During the Polish rebellion to attempt to overthrow Russian rule in 1830, the family relocated “Lady with an ermine” to Paris for protection. At the end of the 19th century, it was brought back to Krakow to be part of the Czartoryski Museum.
During World War II, the scale of art theft under the Nazis was unprecedented. Hitler was undaunted when it came to acquiring art for the Führermuseum that was planned in Austria. The Gestapo succeeded in taking “Lady with an ermine,” which a housekeeper had concealed in a pillowcase in the Czartoryski estate in eastern Poland. It came to be hung in the summer residence in Bavaria of Hans Frank, the governor-general who oversaw the Holocaust and supervised the massacre of Poland’s Jewish population.
In 1945, when Frank was apprehended by American soldiers, the portrait was found. A well-known image captures the moment when “Lady with an ermine” is given to Polish art historian Karol Estreicher by the “Monuments Men,” who assisted the Allies in its recovery.
The painting is extraordinary in many ways. First, it is in remarkable condition for being more than 530 years old. It is rather small (15” by 21”) and executed in oil on walnut board. Oil painting was relatively new to Italy at the time. It had been introduced from the Netherlands in the 1470s and was a revolutionary departure in a country still wedded to frescoes. “Lady with an ermine” is only one of four known Leonardo portraits of women; in fact, there are only about 15 surviving paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, depending on attribution.
As shown in his many surviving sketchbooks, Leonardo was obsessed with the dynamics of movement. Before him, portraits had been static, with the sitter facing the artist square on. Leonardo introduced contrapposto, in which Cecilia is turned to her right with her face turned toward the left. The ermine twists in a similar manner as she strokes it. Her hands are disproportionately large, possibly because Leonardo tended to paint heads and hands and bodies separately, again as shown in his sketchbooks.
Leonardo pioneered a method of shading known as sfumato or smokiness as shown in the subtle tonal gradations on Cecilia’s neck and chest. He also used a special technique of adding “catch lights” or dots of white paint to the irises of her eyes as though reflecting light from an outside source, which lends vivacity to the young woman’s appearance.
Throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, “Lady with an ermine” has traveled the world more than any other Leonardo painting. While it resides today in the Krakow Museum, the painting was brought back to Italy in 2019 to celebrate 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
Other posts on Leonardo da Vinci:
- The Mona Lisa of Montecitorio 7/1/2022
- Salvator Mundi: The Ongoing Saga 12/9/2021
- Paper and Art 2/25/2021
- The Bridge that Spans Centuries 1/16/2020
- What’s on the Menu for the Last Supper? 3/22/2018
- Leonardo’s Paintings: What’s in a Price? 3/8/2018
- The two Leonardos 9/14/2017
- The Leonardo Series 1/14/2016
- The Theft of the Mona Lisa 11/12/2015
- Leonardo da Vinci: 10 Things You May Not Know 7/2/2015