Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady with an Ermine
The Lady with an Ermine… How about just The Lady? A recent discovery from French scientist Pascal Cotte has shown that even some of history’s most famous artists don’t get it right the first time, and can change their minds about their work.
Mr Cotte, co-founder of Paris’ Lumiere Technology, spent three years using his Layer Amplification Method (LAM) to analyse the well-known painting from Leonardo da Vinci. The technique works by projecting intense light into the painting, with a camera taking measurements of the lights’ reflections, which Mr Cotte then analyses.
“The LAM technique gives us the capability to peel the painting like an onion,” he explained, “removing the surface to see what is happening inside and behind the different layers of paint.”
The Lady with an Ermine – believed to have been painted around 1490 – is a portrait of a young woman named Cecilia Gallerani. She was the favourite mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, in the Milanese court.
Until now, it was thought the painting always included the ermine, which is the common name for a stoat in its pure white winter coat. But using LAM, Mr Cotte was able to show that the painting was originally just the woman. Da Vinci added the ermine later, resting against a new blue shawl covering Cecilia’s shoulder. But the original stoat was a dark grey colour with a differently shaped face and body. It appears that the artist then used this grey ermine as a guideline for a more detailed and white version of the creature.
It isn’t known why the ermine was introduced into the picture, though da Vinci is known to have changed his mind. He would make alterations and wouldn’t settle until he was happy with the work. “This is someone who hesitates,” Mr Cotte said of the artist. “He erases things, he adds things, he changes his mind again and again.”
One theory is that da Vinci added the ermine – and later enhanced the details of it – to flatter the Duke of Milan, whose nickname was “the white ermine”. Another is that Cecilia asked for the stoat to be included, to symbolise her relationship with the Duke, without actually painting him to the portrait. It is also possible that as da Vinci’s artistic ability grew, he made adjustments to the ermine and lady accordingly.
University of Oxford’s Emeritus Professor of the History of Art Martin Kemp, who has worked with Mr Cotte in the past, said that the latest revelations about the painting are remarkable. “It tells us a lot more about the way Leonardo’s mind worked when he was doing a painting,” he stated. “Leonardo is endlessly fascinating, so getting this intimate insight into his mind is thrilling.”
Using Mr Cotte’s LAM technique, we might learn even more secrets about some of the world’s most mysterious paintings, and the artists that created them. Watch this space.