In 1919 a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn and his French bride attempted to sell what they thought was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in New York. Renowned art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen declared the picture-La Belle Ferronnière-a fake without ever seeing the canvas. The Hahns sued Duveen for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades.
In The American Leonardo, John Brewer traces the twisting path of the Hahn La Belle-a painting of famously uncertain originas he illuminates the workings of the twentieth-century art market, exploring such larger questions about the art world such as how attributions are made, how they affect both the status and value of artworks, and how the entire system of art dealers, curators, and connoisseurs authenticates works of art. In the early twentieth century new methods of scientific analysis developed, which meant that for the first time, the critical eye of the connoisseur had to contend with an emerging array of scientific and forensic tests that (however crude at their inception) promised a degree of objectivity and reliability unattainable before.
Brewer shows how the tension between the two methods of attribution lay at the heart of the Hahn La Belle dispute, which continues to this day. The painting currently languishes in an Omaha storage vault awaiting the resolution of the most recent lawsuit.
For artists and art-lovers, collectors and curatorsand for anyone who's ever stood in front of a painting and wondered about its storyThe American Leonardo offers a discerning and entertaining view into the art world.
At first, the tale seems rather ordinary: in 1920, Andrée and Harry Hahn offer for sale a painting, La Belle Ferronnière, that they claim is by Leonardo da Vinci. An art dealer questions the painting's authenticity—and the couple sues. In the courtroom, the circus begins, with the usual one-upmanship of experts, cross-examinations and baffled jurors. In two other circus rings are the broader art market and the world of schemers, fakes and the truth about the painting itself. Brewer, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology, is a fine ringmaster. He paints thorough pictures of each player—the ambitious Midwesterner Harry Hahn; the rarified and aggressive art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen; and the numerous representatives who took on the challenge of selling a “tainted” painting: “A large, hectoring man who was also capable of great charm, [Leon] Loucks... told his friends that he was an illegitimate child who had been abandoned by his shame-faced mother who 'sold' him to a medical research facility....” Is La Belle Ferronnière a Leonardo? That mystery drives the book forward, but also delivers a satisfying twist: why do we care? 12 b&w illus. (Oct.)