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An intriguing tale of survival

Times Staff Writer

Every traveling exhibition of treasures from a distant land seems to have a few stars that shine from street banners and pack in crowds. In “Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland,” now making its last stand at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor here, it’s a single painting by Leonardo: “Lady With an Ermine.”

The mesmerizing image of an elegantly attired young woman cradling her exotic pet is only one of 75 European paintings from Polish collections assembled for the show, which opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum and moved on to the Fine Arts Museum, Houston, before coming to San Francisco. But the crowds probably wouldn’t have been much smaller if “Lady With an Ermine” were the only picture in the exhibition.

“This is Leonardo at his most lyrically compelling,” critic Franz Schulze wrote in a review of the show in Art and America magazine. That’s saying a lot for an artist who epitomizes Renaissance genius.

The painting’s appeal has nothing to do with size. A mere 21 3/8 inches high and 15 1/2 inches wide, it’s smaller than a standard poster. What attracts art specialists and the public alike is the portrait’s aesthetic quality and art historical gravitas -- and a timely war story.

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Sent from one hiding place to another during the partitions of Poland, spirited off to Germany during World War I and confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, “Lady With an Ermine” is “a national icon of survival for the Polish people,” says Laurie Winters, a curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, who organized the traveling exhibition.

“The restitution of cultural heritage has really come front and center in the last 10 years,” Winters says. “And now, with the war in Iraq, we are sensitive to the ramifications of that.” The fate of artworks in war-torn lands is “a lower priority than human life,” she says, “but at some point it does become an issue.”

Meticulously painted in oil and tempera on a wood panel, the circa 1490-91 portrait is one of only 12 completed paintings by Leonardo, including a mere three female portraits. Scholars regard “Lady With an Ermine” as a stunningly “modern” marvel of human expression.

“The woman looks out of the canvas, the animal follows her gesture, and they are both full of life,” Winters says. “Leonardo painted this while he was in Milan working on the ‘Last Supper.’ You can see that he’s really experimenting with the human figure and gesture, and how that becomes part of the storytelling.”

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In the opinion of British art historian John Pope Hennessy, “Lady With an Ermine” is “the first painting in European art to introduce the idea that a portrait may express the sitter’s thoughts through posture and gestures. She seems to be engaged with something beyond the picture.”

Most visitors at the Legion of Honor are seeing “Lady With an Ermine” for the first time. Unlike Leonardo’s other female portraits -- the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris and “Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. -- “Lady With an Ermine” is in the collection of a relatively obscure museum, the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. “Lady” has been displayed in the U.S. only once before, in 1992, at the National Gallery’s “Circa 1492" exhibition.

The portrait has traveled widely, however, and therein lies the war story.

The lady in the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Duke Ludovico Sforza, Il Moro, who commissioned Leonardo to paint the portrait while the artist was working in the duke’s court in Milan. The ermine is a symbol of purity, but it probably has more pointed meanings in this case. The duke, who received the insignia of the Chivalric Order of the Ermine from the king of Naples in 1488, had an ermine on his coat of arms, and the sitter’s surname, Gallerani, is similar to the Greek word for ermine, galee.

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The duke never married his mistress, but she ended up with the portrait. Her niece and heir, Camilla de Predis, married into a wealthy family from Milan and the painting remained in the family collection for many years. After that, its whereabouts are unknown until 1800, when a Polish prince, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, purchased it in Italy.

He bought the painting as a gift to his mother, Izabela Czartoryska, a public-spirited aficionado of art and literature. She lived on a park-like estate in Pulawy in eastern Poland, but her homeland had been reduced to the status of a Russian satellite by Peter the Great and partitioned three times by his successor, Catherine II, and the rulers of Austria and Prussia. The third partition, in 1795, was the beginning of a 123-year period of foreign domination. When Izabela received the Leonardo, her primary residence was in a region controlled by Russia, but she hadn’t given up her heritage.

“As early as 1797, she had this extraordinary, quirky idea -- for a woman of her time -- to create a museum that would help preserve the national identity of the Polish people,” Winters says. Izabela founded the first public museum in Poland in 1802, quartered on the estate.

“Izabela put her life on the line repeatedly to keep the collection safe,” Winters says. “We know that on one occasion, she bricked up the Leonardo in her cellar to keep it away from Russian troops.”

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In 1830, during a national insurrection against Russia known as the November Uprising, Russian authorities seized the Czartoryski estate. By then the princess was 84, but with the help of friends she moved the Leonardo about 100 miles south, to another family property in Sieniawa. Shortly thereafter the painting was sent to Paris and installed at the Hotel Lambert, a 17th century palace on the Ile St. Louis that served as the emigre seat of the Czartoryski family.

The family returned to Poland in 1869, after the death of Izabela, but they settled in Krakow, which was under Austrian authority and “more lenient,” Winters says. The Leonardo was moved in 1876 from Paris to Krakow where Izabela’s grandson, Wladyslaw, had established the Princes Czartoryski Museum. In the spirit of his grandmother, he opened the museum to the public in the late 1880s.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. “Lady With an Ermine” was sent to Germany for safekeeping and deposited in the Dresden Gallery during World War I and returned to Krakow in 1920. It remained at the Czartoryski museum until 1939, when it was once again spirited off to Sieniawa to avoid confiscation. But Nazi authorities soon learned of its hideaway, took possession of it and put it on display at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin.

In an odd twist of fate, Hans Frank, the German general who was Hitler’s head of operations in Poland, saw the painting in Berlin in 1940 and took it back to Krakow to decorate his quarters at the Wawel Royal Castle. The painting was moved to a depot of plundered artworks in Wroclaw in 1941 and briefly returned to Krakow for an exhibition at the Wawel Royal Castle in 1943. But Frank, who was apparently smitten with the painting and determined to keep it, took it to his private villa in Schliersee, Bavaria, near the end of the war.

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A Polish American commission found the painting at the villa and returned it to Poland in 1946. “Lady With an Ermine” has been the crown jewel of the Czartoryski Museum ever since.

Other artworks in Polish collections didn’t fare as well. All museums in Poland were closed and their collections were confiscated or destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Inventories and archives were obliterated as well, so it has been impossible to calculate the full extent of the loss.

Another painting originally in the Czartoryski Museum’s collection, Rembrandt’s “Landscape With the Good Samaritan,” was also found at Frank’s villa and sent back to Krakow after the war.

And just last year, a late medieval Persian or Mughal canopy that had been taken from the museum by the Nazis turned up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The L.A. institution, which had purchased the embroidered textile in 1971 from a local dealer, returned it to the Polish museum. But an immensely valuable painting by Raphael, “Portrait of a Young Man,” which was confiscated with the Leonardo and the Rembrandt, is still missing.

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