The "Menpes' Mona Lisa" (inset) looks right at home amongst the Australian bush as depicted by Arthur Streeton in his painting "Settler's Camp" (background).
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 display 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 replication, about two-thirds smaller than the original, was produced in response to Australia’s growing demand for international art at a time when it didn’t have access to works by the great European Masters. And Menpes didn’t stop there. His reproduction of Leonardo’s masterpiece was just one in a series of 38 copies of works by Old Master luminaries like Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Bellini, Rubens and Velasquez. The artist later donated the full collection to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, Australia’s earliest national cultural institution.
A protégé of James McNeill Whistler, Menpes was inspired to create the series during his earlier period abroad. According to his 1938 obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, 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.”
Now valued at close to $1 million, a 2002 exhibition of the collection at the National Library of Australia, The Grand Masters by Mortimer Menpes, attracted 22,000 visitors. Menpes’ Mona Lisa will join the National Library of Australia’s NLA to Z exhibition at the Treasures Gallery beginning in early December 2012.