This painting is likely one of the two Madonnas with Children that Leonardo started in October 1478, as he himself pointed out. The other would be Madonna of the Carnation
in Munich. It seems that the Madonna in the Hermitage was the first work painted by Leonardo independently of his teacher, Verrocchio, and in oil, the new technique for that time. The British Museum has two preliminary sketches for this work. It was a popular work, copied by young Italian artists, including Rafael. His version, Madonna of the Pinks,
was acquired in 2004 by the National Gallery in London.
At the same time, it is one of Leonardo's least studied works. We know that in the 16th century this painting was in the Florentine house of Matteo and Giovanni Botti. Then it appeared only in 1908 as part of the dowry of the wife of the famous architect Leon Benois, the representative of an important artistic family in the Russian Empire. His wife and the Madonna, thus, inherited his surname.
How did the Madonna Benois appear in Russia? Apparently it was brought to Russia from Italy, but when?
The Benois family believed that old Mr. Sapozhnikov, the father of Leon Benois' father-in-law, bought the painting from some Italian wandering musicians in Astrakhan, but it seems to be just a nice family legend.
The other version, which has recently emerged, is more realistic. According to it, Sapozhnikov bought the painting in 1824 at an auction where the property of General Alexei Korsakov was sold, for 1,400 rubles. Korsakov was an art lover, his collection included the works of Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt among others, but after his death his son decided to sell it. In the 1790s Korsakov visited Italy and could have bought Leonardo's Madonna there. The Hermitage also took part in this auction, where it bought some works by Millet but ignored this humble Italian painting.
When Leon Benois demonstrated his restored Madonna at an exhibition of the European art from the private collections of St. Petersburg in 1908, it caused a sensation! Ernst von Liphart, the main curator of the Hermitage, confirmed Leonardo's authority.
In 1912 the Benois family decided to sell the work and sent it to Europe to justify the authenticity again. The best museums in the world wanted to buy it. The Duveen Brothers, the influential antiquarians of that time, offered a good price of about 1 million dollars (500,000 francs), but the Benois accepted the proposal of the Hermitage and the Russian royal family, to keep the painting in Russia. Since 1914 our main museum owns two masterpieces by Leonardo, which is not a few, is it?
Although now it seems that the history of the Virgin with the Child and Flowers
during the last 250 years is more or less clear, we know nothing of its life between the 16th and 18th centuries. Where was this mysterious and smiling lady hidden? Hopefully someday we will find it out. Who knows, may be among our readers there will be someone who will resolve this or another riddle of Leonardo, and there are many!
Come to St. Petersburg to visit the Hermitage
and hear about other interesting stories! If you want to know more about any work from the Hermitage collection, ask us