Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) the Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06) stands apart as one of the most celebrated paintings in the history of Western art. Volumes have been written about her enigmatic smile. A best selling book, The Da Vinci Code (2003), now adapted as a Hollywood film, has only increased the renown of this remarkable portrait and its painter. The Hyde Collection’s drawing Study of the Mona Lisa is perhaps more mysterious than the famous portrait that hangs in the Louvre.
Although nearly identical in size and the positioning of the subject, Study of the Mona Lisa is no longer considered a full-scale drawing, or cartoon, of the Louvre’s famous portrait Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06). First, the paper is not incised or pricked, which would indicate that the image was transferred to the panel. Second, the drawing has been extensively retouched and reworked. This combined with grime build up, smudging, and losses caused by mechanical abrasion to the surface mask the sixteenth century drawing that lies beneath. An attribution in favor of Leonardo is supported by the paper, which dates to the sixteenth century and consists of three smaller sheets of paper glued together. The pieced paper indicates that it was probably taken from a bound volume and Leonardo did execute other preliminary drawings on pieced paper surfaces.
Moreover, the provenance, or history of the ownership of the work, parallels that of an authentic Leonardo cartoon titled Portrait of Isabella d’Este, but questions remain because of the extensive reworking to the figure in the Hyde drawing.
The Hyde drawing was once offered to the Louvre along with the cartoon of Isabella d’Este, but the Louvre declined the Mona Lisa due to its poor condition and extensive overdrawing and restoration. In 1951, Mrs. Charlotte Hyde purchased the drawing from the distinguished scholar and dealer R. Langton Douglas. Although the work has been "decoded" for modern audiences, whether the original drawing is indeed by Leonardo’s hand will remain, like the portrait, a mystery.