The Old Master and 19th Century Art department at Artcurial
recently caused a stir when it sold an exceptional painting, the Penitent Magdalene by Salai, Leonardo de Vincis closest collaborator. Identified by art historians, this oil on panel is an important discovery, one of very few works recognised as being by his hand, and its style reflecting a close connection to the technique of the master, Leonardo da Vinci. With Matthieu Fournier holding the auction behind closed doors, this highly coveted masterpiece sparked an intense battle between telephone bidders, and finally changed hands for 1 745 000 / 2 076 550 $ including premium, setting a new world record auction price for a work by the artist.
Record for Salai, privileged pupil of Leonardo da Vinci
Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who was known as Salai, entered Leonardo da Vincis workshop at the age of ten, on 22 July 1490, Mary Magdalenes Day («il dì della Maddalena»). This precise date was recorded by Leonardo himself, in the margin of Manuscript C, conserved at the Institut de France. Salai remained close to his master for more than 25 years, accompanying him on all his travels. «Thief, liar, stubborn and glutton» («Ladro, bugiardo, ostinato, ghiotto»), he was given his name Salai, meaning little devil, by Leonardo, for the many foolish acts he committed, always pardoned by the master with a certain paternal patience. A workshop boy, model, manager of money, agent, lover, Salai spent his life close to Leonardo, carrying out a variety of tasks without ever renouncing his role as apprentice and eventually artist; he was appointed teacher from 1515.
During the many years he spent with Leonardo, Salai learnt to assimilate better than anyone the brilliant technique of his master. He became one of the most influential popularisers of the Leonardo model, through the production of copies and variations of Leonardos masterpieces. Salai also created his own artworks that reflected what he had learnt from the master and interpreted with a certain autonomy. The Penitent Magdalene, sold by Artcurial on 18 November, bears witness to Salais privileged relationship with the master of the Italian Renaissance. The style of Leonardo is clearly recognisable in the way Salai portrayed the hands and face of his Mary Magdalene.