The dangers of 'science', art history and optimism

October 13 2011

Image of The dangers of 'science', art history and optimism

All images: Art History Today/Graeme Cameron

A new self-published book has made a number of startling art historical claims. The most eye-catching is a new theory on the Mona Lisa: the sitter is, claims Graeme Cameron, an idealised portrait of Leonardo's mother. Cameron also lays claim to a new Leonardo Self-Portrait, and a Portrait of Elizabeth I by Hans Holbein. 

Although I have only seen the findings published over at Art History Today, rarely have I seen so many wild theories in a single book. It's worth ordering a copy of the book out of sheer fascination. The theories highlight how too much 'scientific' analysis of paintings can lead one off on wild tangents if you're not grounded in proper art historical training and connoisseurship. [More below]

First, the Mona Lisa theory. Cameron uses something called 'vegascans' (above) to reveal what he says is an earlier portrait painted in 1493. This 'subsurface', he says, looks like an older sitter, or Leonardo's mother. Which is ingenious, but I bet if you took a similar 'vegascan' of any portrait you'd get a similarly ill and elderly looking sitter beneath. I won't repeat all the compelling evidence here which points to the sitter being Lisa Gherardini. 

Next up is the 'Leonardo Self-Portrait' (above). This is confirmed by a number of symbols hidden in the background of the picture. Here's one below. Can you see it? Or is it just old glaze, varnish and ingrained dirt in the canvass recesses which, if you join the dots in a certain way, might look like a animal's head facing left? And never mind the fact that the portrait is clearly a much later work, painted many decades after Leonardo's death. 

Finally, and perhaps my favourite, is the 'Holbein' of Elizabeth I below. The only problem is that this is a portrait probably painted in the early 1540s, which means that Elizabeth would have to be about ten to be the sitter. Holbein dies in 1543, so for it to be both of Elizabeth and by Holbein, the sitter is, claims Cameron, nine. Do you think the sitter below can be a nine year old? It was once, like many Tudor panel portraits, optimistically called a Holbein, but the attribution has been rightly dismissed by modern scholars. 

You can read a more sympathetically framed presentation of Mr Cameron's findings with many more images here and here. I don't mean to be unduly dismissive of Mr Cameron's efforts, and it's always fun to hear of new ideas and theories. But I too often see art history hijacked by scientific 'analysis' which, to the layman, can look impressively conclusive. So be careful what you believe.  


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