By Clarke Canfield
Is the painting an authentic Leonardo? Or is it a copy?
The answer may never be known about a work called "La Gioconda" that now hangs in the Portland Museum of Art. The painting, which bears a striking resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," was put on display last month the day before The Da Vinci Code movie began showing at theaters.
In the weeks since, the painting has created a buzz among the curious. Museum officials think the painting, along with record rains, helped fuel a new attendance record for May; the crowds are on a record-setting pace for June, as well.
Some experts suggest that Leonardo painted it as a preparatory study for the "Mona Lisa," while others said it was more likely painted by a Leonardo follower after the "Mona Lisa" was done, the museum says. There was evidence of left-handed brush strokes - Leonardo was a lefty - but it will probably never be positively known who painted it.
It was no coincidence that the museum exhibited the work at the same time the movie came out, said Carrie Haslett, the museum's curator of modern art. The movie, and Dan Brown's best-selling book on which it was based, have created an interest not just in Leonardo's works, but in the history of his time 500 years ago. "It's great to put it out because people are thinking about it," Haslett said. "They're reading the book. They're watching the movie."
"La Gioconda" was given to the museum in 1983 by the late Henry Reichhold, a Maine summer resident.
It was put on display when it was given to the museum, and again in early 2004 to capitalize on the popularity of "The Da Vinci Code," which was published in 2003. The novel is about a murder inside the Louvre museum in Paris and how clues in Leonardo's works lead to the discovery of a religious mystery that could shake the foundations of Christianity.
For the most part, though, the Portland museum has kept "La Gioconda" in storage because it does not fit in with the museum's other holdings, which are mostly from 1800 to 1950 as well as some contemporary American art.
Shortly after getting the painting, the museum had it analyzed at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard University. Conservators determined that it was done before 1510 - the "Mona Lisa" is thought to have been created between 1503 and 1506 or so - but were unable to confirm or disprove whether Leonardo had a hand in it.
"La Gioconda" is slightly smaller than "Mona Lisa," it has less background detail, the woman's position is slightly different and her smile is less developed than the enigmatic smile on the original. But the woman is the same as in the "Mona Lisa," and an untrained eye could be forgiven for mistaking the two paintings. "Mona Lisa," which is also called "La Gioconda," hangs in the Louvre.