Two chalk and pastel sketches of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, once owned by a 19th-century Dutch king, will go up for auction next month.
Attributed to Leonardo’s assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, each 25-by-18.5-inch drawing, done to the actual size of the figures in the painting, is valued at £120,000 ($146,500) each.
Chalk and pastel sketch of the head of Saint James the Less, attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. Credit: Sotheby’s London
According to Christiane Romalli, Sotheby’s senior specialist in old master drawings, experts aren’t entirely sure what these studies were made for, but say 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 renowned English artist Thomas Lawrence as well as William II, King of the Netherlands, before being divided and given over to several museums, galleries and private hands. This pair of drawings was last sold as individual lots at Christie’s in 2005 for $96,000 for St. John and $57,600 for St. James.
Since then, “there has been nothing like it on the market,” Romalli said in a telephone interview from London.
The Last Supper was written between 1495 and 1498 and became a symbolic work of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts Jesus in a moment of excitement as he announces that one of his twelve disciples will betray him, illustrating the expressive reaction of his most ardent followers. Leonardo pointed to the culprit, Judas, by drawing his face in shadow.
Visitors take pictures of “The Last Supper” (“Il Cenacolo” or “L’Ultima Cena”), a late 15th-century fresco by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, kept in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan, May 8, 2019 G. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
The famous painting, which attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year before the pandemic, is in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan, Italy. But due to its deteriorating condition, it is subject to ongoing conservation efforts.
Leonardo used an experimental dry fresco technique that made the surface brittle and prone to flaking shortly after it was completed. It has since survived poor environmental conditions and numerous restoration attempts over the centuries and was almost destroyed when the church was bombed during World War II. According to Sotheby’s, the early copies made by Leonardo’s assistants “provide valuable evidence of how this masterpiece should have looked originally.”
Christie’s employees pose in front of a painting titled “The Savior of the World” by Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci at a photo session at Christie’s auction house in central London on October 22, 2017 prior to its sale at Christie’s in New York on November 15, 2017.
According to Romalli, the drawings attributed to Boltraffio are “unusual” due to their size and use of color.
“These are quite large pieces of paper… so they are very striking,” she explained. “And then pastel colors are not something you often see. Leonardo introduced the use of colored chalk in Italy, but this is what came from France.”
Two drawings from a set of 11 studies, including one depicting the infamous head of Judas, are in the collection of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although they are the work of an unknown artist. And in London, the Royal Academy of Arts keeps a complete copy of the fresco, presumably the work of Boltraffio and his second assistant Giampietrino.
Boltraffio continued his own career, attracting patrons and earning commissions, including a Virgin and Child scene called “Pala Casio” in 1500 for a chapel near Bologna, now in the Louvre in Paris. Although he was an artist who started “completely under the wing of Leonardo,” Romalli said, “he was able to develop something for himself.”
Top image caption: St. John the Evangelist with a profile of the head of St. Peter on the left, a study attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio.