In 1501 Leonardo da Vinci undertook a small devotional painting for Florimond Robertet, a Frenchman and secretary to King Louis XII of France. The work, now apparently lost, was described as 'in course of realisation' in a letter of Fra Pietro da Novarella to Isabella d'Este dated 14 April 1501: '... a Madonna seated as if she were about to spin yarn. The Child has placed his foot on the basket of yarns and has grasped the yarnwinder and gazes attentively at the four spokes that are in the form of a cross ...'
The subsequent history of Leonardo's painting remains mysterious. There is no evidence that it was ever delivered to Robertet, and it is possible, like so many others of Leonardo's projects, that the picture never progressed from its state as a sketch or cartoon for the use of his studio.
This notwithstanding, one can infer from the numerous sixteenth-century versions that the composition gained rapidly in popularity throughout Italy. Five such paintings, including the present picture, were grouped together in an exhibition held in 1992 at the National Gallery of Scotland entitled The Mystery of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. The first of the extant pictures is in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland, and is of French provenance; another good version was formerly in the Reford collection, Canada, and is currently in a private collection, United States.
Professor Martin Kemp in the 1992 exhibition catalogue dates the present painting to circa 1505-30 and describes it as 'one of the livelier and more accomplished of the close descendants of the 1501 painting for Robertet ... of the various followers ... the only one that comes close to capturing the subtle sfumato of Leonardo's shading of flesh tones'. Kemp believes the painting to be by a Milanese follower of Leonardo, familiar with the master's works and also acquainted with Netherlandish landscapes, and proposes an attribution to Cesare da Sesto, but the picture is not recorded in Marco Carminati's monograph of the artist. Given the oak support, it is also possible that the picture is by a Flemish artist.
Professor Roberto Longhi, having examined the painting in 1966, thought the present painting to have been executed in Leonardo's studio, possibly after one of his drawings. Noting the Northern features of the landscape in the picture, he suggested that the landscape was painted by Cesare Bernazzano, a Milanese artist who collaborated on occasion with Cesare da Sesto.