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Discovering the provenance of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi formed a significant part of the book that I co-authored with Margaret Dalivalle and Martin Kemp. Determining which records and references pertained to the original and which to the many copies and derivations of the painting required the unraveling of dozens of documentary threads, intertwined and occasionally knotted, stretching across the centuries.
While Leonardo’s original was the focus in the book, a look at one of the rejected threads can provide insight into the changing state of connoisseurship of the artist’s paintings, as well as the art market (and its occasionally hyperbolic promotional language) during the nineteenth century.
The earliest mention of the handsome Salvator Mundi now in the Detroit Institute of Arts was at a Christie’s auction on 16 June 1821, where it was described as follows:
L. Da Vinci, The Salvator Mundi—This rare and admirable performance of the great master was painted for Francis the First, and was formerly preserved in the Abbaye de St. Denys, near Paris.
Since it was widely known that Leonardo died at Francis I’s court in Amboise (legendarily in the King’s arms) while serving as his “first painter and engineer,” it would seem quite plausible that such a clearly devotional painting could have descended to the Cathedral of St-Denis, the traditional burial site of French royalty (including Francis I). The destruction and looting of the interior of St-Denis during the French Revolution, which had occurred less than 30 years prior to the auction, provided both an explanation for the painting’s appearance in London and perhaps an enticement for an opportunistic purchaser.
The cover of the sale catalogue described the consignor as “a well-known amateur, who has indulged his taste in collecting for a series of years, by selecting from the most distinguished cabinets offered in this country, besides purchasing abroad, and who is about to leave England for the Continent.” The catalogue further advises, “Many of these pictures have never before been seen in this country: among them … [in a larger font and all caps] “A SALVATOR MUNDI BY L. DA VINCI, A RARE AND PRECIOUS SPECIMEN OF THE HIGHEST MERIT.”
An annotated copy of the catalogue designates the “well-known amateur” as a Mr Parke—identifiable as John Parke, a celebrated oboist (1745-1829) and sometime dealer, truly a marchand amateur, who was a frequent buyer and seller at auction from the 1790s on. The painting was lot 63 in the sale and was “put up at 800 guineas,” according to the annotated catalogue, but was unsold. This was an extraordinary price, worthy of a Leonardo original, especially when compared with the top lot in the sale, Rembrandt’s Dismissal of Hagar, which sold for 105 guineas. (That painting, now considered to be from Rembrandt’s workshop, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum).
We do not know whether John Parke in fact left for the Continent as advertised or whether the sale was a consequence of Parke’s indebtedness, which would lead to his imprisonment two years later in the Marshalsea, the notorious debtor’s prison in Southwark. In any case the painting remained in Parke’s possession, and following his death in 1829, it appeared in an 11 March 1835, auction at the “directions of the Executor of the late John Parke, Esq., of Dean-street.” The auction, by George Robins of Covent Garden, was advertised with a kind of timeless hype: the paintings offered were “reserved gems of the highly-gifted owner and which it had been intended should descend to posterity. Circumstances now direct their submitted, without the aid of any fancy or protecting price, to the liberal patronage of those who delight in the fine arts, and more especially that portion that prefer the old school.” Step right up, ladies and gentlemen!
The catalogue entry for the painting spared no praise:
Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Christ. The sublime aspect of the Saviour, so placid—so serene—and yet so firm in intellect, indeed with a mind more than human, yet compassionating human infirmities—superior to all, but disregarding none. These, as far as pencil can portray, Da Vinci has represented. The glass globe held in the Saviour’s hand, at once the emblem of universality, and of that mind to which the Universe itself is but a transparent bubble, is indeed a sublime idea, and the direct front view of the figure gives a majesty which proclaims the original far above human frailty. The coloring of this picture is so deep and rich, and yet so true to nature, that it leaves other works, even of the same artist, at an unreasonable distance; and the exquisite drawing and finish of every part place it among the most extraordinary performances in existence. This picture was in the collection of the King of France, at St. Denis, before the Revolution, and is carefully described in the catalogue now preserved in the French library. It was engraved by Hollar, and an impression (now very rare) is seen with the picture. The picture was purchased by Mr. Parke, in October 1826, from a French gentleman who then brought it from the Continent, and it has never before been offered for public sale.
While the entry added another inviting detail—that the work was that engraved by (Wenceslaus) Hollar, as the original indeed was—that information, like the fact that the painting had never been offered at auction before and that it was purchased in 1826 (we know that it was offered for sale five years earlier) was as false as the statement that there was no “protecting price”—that is, a reserve price—at the auction. All five paintings remained unsold.
They reappeared a year later at Christie’s (26 March 1836) but were withdrawn and re-offered on 7 May 1836, this time designated as the property of Henry Parke, John’s architect son, who had died in 1835. Henry began his career as a marine painter but is largely known as one of the principal draughtsmen in the employ of Sir John Soane. Again, none of the paintings sold, and we can only suspect that the family’s conviction that their Salvator Mundi was Leonardo’s original and deserving of a commensurate price (and auction reserve) was not shared by the collecting public.
The paintings presumably passed to Henry’s daughter Katherine Parke, but there is no further record of the Salvator Mundi until 1865, when it appeared in an auction of “pictures removed from Mr. Cox’s British Gallery”—a commercial art gallery operated for 40 years by William Cox. A notice sounding very much like an advertisement in the Pall-Mall Gazette of 11 December 1865, stated “Mr. Cox’s British Gallery in Pall-Mall, which is composed of the works of old masters and deceased British artists, and is one of the permanent attractions of the metropolis, will afford the curious visitor an hour’s special entertainment. Here he may find scarce works and early performances of distinguished painters; and many mature efforts of great power and renown. Some which have passed through many hands, and whose very history is romantic, may be seen in this collection.”
The sale, held by Foster on 13-14 December 1865, presented the Salvator Mundi as lot 107, described as by Leonardo da Vinci, with the following note:
From the Collection of Mr. Parkes [sic]. This Picture was procured from a French gentleman by Mr. Parke and remained in the possession of his heirs until purchased by Mr. Cox; it was bought in at a public auction in 1821 for 800 guineas. Engraved by Hollar, and mentioned in the Catalogue of the French Library as belonging to the Kings of France until the period of the Revolution in 1789. Size 26 ½ in. by 19.
An annotated copy of the catalogue states that the painting had sold for 100 guineas, but that seems to have been misdirection to obscure yet another auction failure, as the painting reappeared 24 years later at a Christie’s sale comprising paintings consigned by Mrs. Cox, presumably William’s widow. Lot 134 in the 6 April 1889 sale was simply listed without the earlier promotional persiflage: “L. Da Vinci…Salvator Mundi / From the Collection of Mr. Park [sic], 1821”). It was sold to a certain Dean or Deacon, who purchased the painting on behalf of the publisher and philanthropist James E. Scripps. The price paid was 62 guineas (£65-1), far from the 800 guinea reserve of 1821. By contrast the National Gallery had purchased Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks from the Earl of Suffolk for £9,000 in 1879, then the highest price paid for a work of art, even though occurring at a historic low point in the art market.
The British-born Scripps had moved to America at an early age, become a journalist and founded what was to become the Detroit News. His experience and travels, especially following a five-month trip through Europe in 1881, emboldened him to form a collection of representative Old Master paintings, which he would donate to the newly-formed Detroit Museum of Art (now Detroit Institute of Arts) in 1889. In the catalogue that Scripps himself wrote, and in subsequent museum catalogues, the Salvator Mundi was listed with pride but due caution as “attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.”
Later scholarly opinion placed the painting among Leonardo’s students and associates. Berenson attributed it to Marco d’Oggiono, then Giampietrino. Others have suggested Leonardo’s acolyte Salaì, though Giampietrino is most frequently cited as the painting’s author and is how the painting is currently catalogued by the museum. However, recent dating of the picture through analysis of the growth rings of its Baltic oak support (dendrochronology) have established that the earliest felling date of the tree from which it came was 1569, and the earliest likely date for the painting (following travel and seasoning) would be 1571—long after the demise of Giampietrino and Leonardo’s other students.
The precise repetition of several details from Leonardo’s painting in the Detroit Salvator Mundi suggests that its author had direct knowledge of the original—likely in France in the early seventeenth century. Still there remain evident compositional differences between the two: the later Christ has a fuller beard, normalized and symmetrized features, and changes in color and ornament to the costume that likely reflect contemporary stylistic and devotional preferences. While this Salvator may lack some of the power, aura, and subtlety of Leonardo’s painting, it retains a remarkable appeal, both as a reflection of the original and as an effective work of art. It is gratifying to know that after many years in storage at the Detroit Institute, this “rare and admirable performance” has recently returned to public view.
Discover more about Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in this three-part blog series.
Featured image: The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi LLC (used with permission)
Robert B. Simon is an art historian and art dealer in New York, specializing in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. He received his doctorate at Columbia University, and has published and lectured widely on both art-historical matters and on broader concerns relating to the authenticity, valuation, conservation, and commercial trade of works of art. Significant paintings, drawings, and sculpture from his gallery are to be found in major American museums, as well as in private collections worldwide. He is co-author of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts (OUP, 2019).
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Exemplary detective work combined with a highly readable presentation of the results. One can only wish that other versions of the Salvator Mundi would be researched with equal erudition and thoroughness in order to disambiguate and disentangle the numerous references in auction records and inventories.
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