No, there aren’t any Kangaroos in the background, and good old Mona isn’t flanked by gum trees. In fact, the Australian copy of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which is about to go on show at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, is almost as good as the real thing – perhaps even better if you hail from the “land down under”.
Painted by Adelaide-born artist Mortimer Menpes between 1900 and 1909, the painting, created two-thirds smaller than the original, was produced by the artist in response to a demand for international art at a time when Australians didn’t have access to the works of the great European Masters.
Menpes, a protégé of James McNeill Whistler, didn’t stop with his reproduction of Da Vinci's masterpiece – he produced a 38-piece collection of works which he donated to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, Australia's earliest national cultural institution. Included in the collection are paintings by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Bellini, Rubens and Velasquez.
According to his obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald and written by Thea Cowan, “Menpes strolled around the galleries of Europe deciding which of the pictures of the old masters he should reproduce. His search led him to Russia, where the Czar showed him the famous Rembrandts at the Hermitage. When he returned, enthusiastically the Menpes family set to work to publish reproductions.”
A press release from the office of Arts Minister Simon Crean, who today inspected the Australian copy of the Mona Lisa as Library preservation experts prepared it for display, states that “Menpes talent was recognised when he became a protégé of British Master James McNeill Whistler and his copies are regarded as skilful and convincing in their execution.”
Now worth close to $1 million, the 38-work collection was featured in The Great Masters by Mortimer Menpes exhibition at the National Library of Australia in 2002 which attracted 22,000 visitors.
Menpes' Mona Lisa will join the National Library of Australia's NLA to Z exhibition at the Treasures Gallery from early December 2012.