Mysterious Origins of Hanover’s Mona Lisa

For the Valley News
Friday, August 11, 2017

Today the Mona Lisa is probably the most widely recognized painting in the world. Even if you have never gazed at the portrait in the Louvre in Paris, you can probably describe the simply dressed woman with the mysterious smile. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting was an instant hit in the 16th century and copies — some by highly skilled painters — proliferated. But how in the world did a near-duplicate, executed 500 years ago, perhaps in the master’s own workshop, end up in a home in Hanover? The tale, which is almost as intriguing as Mona Lisa’s smile, begins with a young man from Rhode Island who was once under the spell of another famous woman, Marie Antoinette. 

Shortly after the close of the American Revolution, William Henry Vernon of Newport, R.I., graduated from Princeton University. He was only 18 years old and not ready to assume a place in the world. His father, a prosperous merchant who had held a post akin to the secretary of the Navy during the revolution, had many connections with men of influence, and he looked to them to help his son grow into a man who could be useful to his country. In 1778, Vernon’s father sent him off to Paris with letters of introduction to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who were living there at the time, and to the Marquis de Lafayette.

The elder Vernon hoped his son would return, a couple years older and more worldly wise, to join the family firm. However, after Benjamin Franklin introduced him at the royal court, the young man had no taste for business. He plunged into life among the aristocrats with pure delight. He adopted their dress and imitated their manners and made himself useful whenever he could. Two years stretched into five and then 10.

By then Vernon could easily pass for a French nobleman. But what had been his delight took a sinister turn as the populace began to rise up against the king. Vernon continued to live among the nobility through the Reign of Terror and beyond, but finally he was swept up with members of the French aristocracy and imprisoned. Unable to prove his American citizenship, he was facing execution when a group of Americans living in France successfully petitioned for his release. Vernon fled the country and returned to the States.  

Along with his fancy dress clothes, he packed up more than 50 Old Master paintings. They included works by Titian, Van Dyck, Murillo, Veronese, Michelangelo — and a portrait of the Mona Lisa that Vernon believed was painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself.

How did William Vernon come by such a glorious trove of art? A folder of newspaper and magazine clippings in Dartmouth’s Rauner Library offers some answers, and other questions.

Family legend has it that some of the paintings were gifts, given by members of the French aristocracy in gratitude for services rendered during the Reign of Terror. Vernon was believed to have helped more than one person escape from France by bringing along some young man he claimed was his tutor when he made visits to the United States.

For more than 30 years after his final return, Vernon displayed the bulk of his collection in his private museum in Newport, R.I.  The Mona Lisa, however, was his special prize; he hung it in his bedroom. Members of his household sometimes saw him kneeling before it. This is not as strange as it seems, when you know that the title he gave the painting was The Nun.

Vernon never married. When he died in 1833, his home and his art collection were sold at auction. His Mona Lisa, however, was purchased by a friend and given back to family members. It was passed down through Vernon’s nephews and nieces, generation after generation, largely staying out of public view. Eventually it came into the hands of Ambrose White Vernon, who joined the Dartmouth faculty in the department of biography in 1924.

Professor Vernon shared with friends the story of how William Vernon had acquired this particular painting. In 1963 another Dartmouth professor, Donald Stone, told the tale in a letter to the Hanover Gazette. Toward the end of the 18th century, as revolution was breaking out, the French queen, Marie Antoinette, approached William Vernon, who was well known to everyone at court. “She told him that this was a favorite picture of hers,” Stone wrote, “that the times were disordered and no one knew what might happen. She asked him to take at least temporary charge of the portrait — if the country became settled, he could return it.  Meanwhile, it would be safe in his hands, as an American citizen would not be subject to arrest or property seizure.”

By the time Vernon left France for good, Marie Antoinette had been beheaded and disorder continued. He bundled up the Mona Lisa with the rest of his paintings and returned to Rhode Island.

The Louvre’s Mona Lisa, so familiar to us now, was not particularly well-known until 1911, when it went missing. Museum employees noticed the blank space on the wall one morning but thought nothing of it, because paintings were routinely removed to be photographed. No one realized, until the next day, that the painting had been stolen. The portrait was finally found two years later, by which time it had become the most famous of Leonardo’s works.

When Ambrose White Vernon moved to Hanover, he hung the Mona Lisa in his home on Downing Road. He shared possession with another family member, and after enjoying it for six months, he shipped it off to the other owner for the rest of the year. But the world-wide fame of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa led the family to wonder whether such casual treatment of their painting was wise. Just how valuable was it, anyway? 

In 1950 the Princeton Club of New York exhibited the Vernon Mona Lisa for one day. A report in the Nov. 10, 1950, Princeton Alumni Weekly provides a wealth of information about the Vernon family’s efforts to learn more about their painting. Experts at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum had examined it in the 1930s and declared it from the same era as the Louvre painting.  

Years later a renowned historian, Thomas M. Judson, visited Professor Vernon’s home to examine the work. He was convinced by the brushwork that Leonardo himself painted the face, if not the entire portrait. But he also noted that the Vernon painting shows a woman who is younger and thinner, one whose expression seems sadder in comparison. Lest it be written off as a poor copy, these differences would have to be explained. Judson offered a startling theory.

It is known that the sitter, Lisa Gherardini, lost a child in 1499, and Judson thought it likely that da Vinci began the Vernon portrait at around that time, and that the grieving mother became too ill to continue. A few years later, when the sittings began again, the woman’s appearance had changed so much that da Vinci abandoned the earlier portrait and started another painting, the one that hangs in the Louvre. The Vernon portrait was finished by someone else, perhaps da Vinci’s pupil Bernardino Luini.

If this is the true story of the origin of the Vernon Mona Lisa, it gives the painting a certain distinction. Rather than being one of many, many copies of the Louvre portrait, it is actually a forerunner.

Judson’s theory was neither widely embraced nor rejected. But William Vernon’s heirs had learned enough; they realized that their Mona Lisa was far too valuable to hang in a private home in Hanover.  She was trundled into a vault in New Jersey and seldom saw the light of day.

For Ambrose White Vernon, it was a grievous loss. “The Mona Lisa has been with us so long that it has seemed more like a dearly loved member of the family than a material possession,” he told Woman’s Day magazine for an article published in October 1955.

For a while she was remembered fondly in the Upper Valley. On Feb. 14, 1963, while the Louvre’s Mona Lisa was touring New York and Washington, D.C., Margaret Beck McCallum wrote in the Hanover Gazette, “It was nice of the French Government to send her over, but as far as Hanover is concerned it’s sort of coals to Newcastle.”  

Gradually the painting’s one-time presence here was forgotten. But it eventually gained new recognition. On April 23, 1982, The New York Times published an article about a small museum in Montclair, N.J., headlined, “Where You Can See America’s ‘Mona Lisa’.”

By then, nine people shared ownership of the painting. One heir said that the family would like it to be seen “by as many people as possible,” and would be willing to sell it; however, given the number of co-owners, it might be difficult for them to agree on a price.

Eventually an agreement of some sort was reached. In 1995 it was consigned to Sotheby’s New York auction house. An unnamed buyer bought it for $552,200, nearly five times the top estimate. It dropped out of sight, and today its whereabouts are unknown, leaving open the possibility, however faint, that the Vernon Mona Lisa may have returned to the Upper Valley.

Teresa Oden is a researcher and writer. She lives in Hanover.