Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
Two chalk and pastel studies of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ that once belonged to a 19th-century Dutch king will go up for auction next month.
The head portraits of St John the Evangelist and St James, each seated to the left of Jesus Christ in the famous Milan fresco, are part of a Sotheby’s sale in London on July 6 dedicated to masterpieces on paper.
Attributed to Leonardo’s assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, each 25 x 18.5 inch drawing, designed to be life-size of the figures in the painting, is estimated to sell for up to £120,000 ($146,500) each .
According to Cristiana Romalli, senior specialist in Old Master drawings at Sotheby’s, experts are not sure why the studies were produced, but said the large-scale portraits are “extremely rare”.
Part of a series of 11 similar studies of the apostles depicted in ‘The Last Supper’, the collection was once owned by the famous English painter Thomas Lawrence as well as William II, King of the Netherlands, before being divided and held by several museums, galleries and private hands. This pair of drawings was last sold in separate lots in 2005 at Christie’s, for $96,000 for St. John and $57,600 for St. James.
Since then, “there hasn’t been anything like it on the market,” Romalli said in a phone interview from London.
“The Last Supper” was painted between 1495 and 1498 and became an emblematic work of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts Jesus as he announces that one of his twelve disciples will betray him, illustrating the expressive reactions of his most ardent followers. Leonardo pointed to the culprit, Judas, by painting his face in shadow.
The iconic painting, which drew hundreds of thousands of visitors each year before the pandemic, is housed in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. But due to its deteriorating state, it is the subject of ongoing conservation efforts.
Leonardo used an experimental dry fresco technique, which left the surface brittle and prone to flaking soon after its completion. It has since endured poor environmental conditions and multiple restoration attempts over the centuries and was nearly destroyed when the church was bombed during World War II. According to Sotheby’s, early copies of Leonardo’s assistants “are a valuable indication of how the masterpiece originally looked”.
The designs attributed to Boltraffio are “unusual” for their size and use of color, Romalli said.
“They’re pretty big works, to be on paper…so that makes them very striking,” she explained. “And then the pastel colors, it’s not something you see often. Leonardo introduced the use of colored chalk to Italy, but it’s something that comes from France.
Two drawings from the set of 11 studies, including one that features the infamous head of Judas, reside in the collection of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but as the work of an unidentified artist. And in London, the Royal Academy of Arts has a fully painted copy of the fresco, believed to be the work of Boltraffio and a second assistant, Giampietrino.
Boltraffio pursued his own career, attracting patrons and winning commissions, including a Madonna and Child scene called “Pala Casio” in 1500, for a chapel near Bologna, which is now in the Louvre museum in Paris. . Although he was an artist who started “totally under Leonardo’s wing”, Romalli said, “he was able to develop something for himself”.
Top image caption: Saint John the Evangelist with the profile of the head of Saint Peter to the left, study attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio.
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