A rare photograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna


In the early twentieth century, many new attributions to Leonardo da Vinci were first presented to the international art historical community from the pages of The Burlington Magazine. When in 1909 a Virgin with Child attributed to Leonardo was exhibited from the Madame Leon Benois collection in Saint Petersburg, a debate about its authorship ensued. Many respected scholars such as Gustavo Frizzoni ascribed it to Leonardo merely on the basis of a photograph. The writer, collector and frequent contributor to the Burlington Herbert Cook, however, travelled to Russia to see this work and have it photographed specifically for publication in the Burlington where, in December 1911, he confirmed the attribution to Leonardo.[i] Only a few weeks later, in January 1912, the connoisseur and Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Sidney Colvin added in the Burlington another piece of evidence for the attribution to Leonardo: a sketch for this work in Leonardo’s own hand from the British Museum.[ii] The Benois Madonna (Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) is now unanimously accepted as an autograph work by Leonardo and the model for the composition of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks at the National Gallery in London.

BP, November 2013

New York-based art writer Paul Jeromack comments: ‘in 1913, in one of the most agonizing ‘almosts’ of the art trade, the Czar exercised his right to an option on the Benois Madonna, for which he paid $1.5 million dollars. The art dealer Duveen had already given the Benois family a deposit and the picture was in Paris, waiting to be shipped to Henry Clay Frick. I guess it would be a ‘last-minute triumph’ if you’re Russian.’

[i] H. F. Cook, ‘Leonardo da Vinci and Some Copies’, The Burlington Magazine, December 1911, Vol. 20 No. 105, pp. 128-133.

[ii] S. Colvin, ‘A Note on the Bénois Madonna of Leonardo da Vinci’, The Burlington Magazine, January 1912, Vol. 20 No. 106, pp. 230-233.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s