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Biography of a Painting
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by John Brewer
The American Leonardo:  A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money (Oxford/NY:  Oxford University Press, 2009, 310p.)

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This book is a biography of a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.  Brewer provides a mystery story covering an 80-year period.  Brewer traces the story of the painting called La Belle Ferronière.  This painting belonged to a Kansas City couple named Hahn.

Harry Hahn and his French wife Andrée had received this painting as a wedding gift from an adoptive aunt of Andrée shortly after World War One.  A controversy arose that led to a complex international intrigue because this painting is the same as another like it in the Louvre.  Brewer investigates legal transcripts, affidavits, newspaper stories, family papers and all the other sources he can discover, in order to tell the complex story.

When the Hahns decided to sell the painting, thy needed to have it evaluated and authenticated.  Authorities differed, and as matters progressed, the authenticity of the copy in the Louvre was questioned also.  The amazing tale involved a side by side evaluation, discussion among differing authorities and legal battles over defamation and complex financial agreements over the decades of the 20th century.

Controversies and disputes continued over rights to sell or display the Hahn La Belle.  Promissory notes and contracts over rights changed hands in confusing layers of claims, counterclaims and legal liabilities.  Hahn personally interviewed many principals and family members, and spent hundreds of hours in research and finally got a personal view of the painting.

The Louvre's copy is also deemed by authorities to be a copy, a joint work by Leonardo and his students or a painting by one of his disciples.  The creditable Hahn work of art, however, was likewise never substantiated as an authentic Leonardo.  Brewer found it in a locked storage vault in Chicago, under the care of the current representative of the Hahn family, still unable to sell the painting.  The lower market value of the unauthenticated painting makes it of less value than the family are willing to sell it for.  

The amazing, multi-faceted, complex story hangs together through the skillful descriptive prose of Brewer.  Mystery fans will find this as engrossing as most murder mysteries they have read.  The American Leonardo holds its own in the world of spy novels and international suspense and intrigue.

A strong theme in this story is the charge that the professional art world, with its valuations, museums and auctions, is a racket amounting to collusion among a small clique intending to bilk unsophisticated nouveaus riches.  A hefty trade in fakes gains the spotlight for much of the story, complicating the legal theme in worldwide art trade over the 20th century.

The Hahn La Belle becomes the cause célèbre around which an outsider from the Midwest takes on the subjective, cliquish arrogance of the professionals.  This traditional art clique initially rejected the attempts to objectify evaluations by use of modern science.

Forensic approaches can evaluate the components of the pigments, character of the canvas or wood and other media.  The old school rejected such rational objective approaches, favoring the supposed emotional effect paintings supposedly have on those sensitive to them.  Thus the story Brewer presents here traces the development of scientific analysis as a major component now accepted in evaluating and authenticating old master paintings.

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First Reviewed on amazon and Thoughts and Resources 30 December 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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