Home Arts Prized Leonardo portrait in motion at US National Gallery of Art amid renovations

Prized Leonardo portrait in motion at US National Gallery of Art amid renovations

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Visitors to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, to see Leonardo da Vinci’s only painting on public display in the Americas – his first portrait of a Florentine banker’s teenage daughter – take note : the work is moved from its usual perch in the galleries of Italian, French and Spanish works from the 13th to the 16th century currently being renovated.

From July 17, Ginevra de’ Benci (1474-78) will be exhibited in Gallery 39 of the NGA West Neoclassical Building, a space usually reserved mainly for Flemish and Dutch works of the same period. The sixth gallery, where the Leonardo usually hangs alongside pieces by Andrea del Castagno, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi and others, will be closed for renovations until early next year.

Installation view of Gallery Six on the ground floor of the National Gallery West Building with Leonardo da Vinci Ginevra de’ Benci Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Leonardo’s move coincides with the closure of the NGA’s main entrance facing the National Mall and about 20 other galleries on the ground floor of the museum’s west building. Closures are necessary due to building repairs and renovationsincluding replacing sections of its roof, improving its entrance facing the National Mall, and improving its lawn.

The NGA’s West Building, designed by John Russell Pope – who also designed the British Museum’s Jefferson Memorial and Duveen Gallery – was the largest marble building in the world at the time of its creation. Built on the site of the assassination of President James A. Garfield, it was completed in 1941.

Ginevra de’ Benci’s portrait of Leonardo, made when he was in his early to mid-twenties, was held in the princely collections of Liechtenstein from the 17th century until the 1960s, when Prince Franz Joseph II of Liechtenstein let it be known that the image was for sale. The NGA won in the ensuing bidding war, acquiring the painting in 1967 for $5 million – the largest sum ever paid for an artwork at the time. The museum had hosted the work of Leonardo mona-lisa four years prior at a rare traveling exhibition of the iconic work, which caused uproar and long lines in Washington.

The prized acquisition landed in the US capital under cover of secrecy, with an FBI escort – using the code name “The Bird” – in January 1967. The museum Press release The announcement of the acquisition made clear the enormity of the purchase: “No other generally recognized painting by Leonardo is known to be in private hands or in a public collection outside of Europe.” It was unveiled with great fanfare on March 17, 1967, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the NGA.

Last year, the NGA acquired Leonardo’s drawing Grotesque head of an old woman (1489-90), which is an excellent example of his numerous studies of physiognomy.

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