Described by eighteenth-century tradition as 'la Columbine', this enigmatic composition, presumably a portrait of a lady as Flora, exists in several versions of varying quality, the best-known of which is in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, and has gained widespread acceptance as a work by Francesco Melzi - an artist described as the last and 'favourite pupil' of Leonardo da Vinci. Melzi followed Leonardo to France in the last years of his life, 1515-1519, and was entrusted in Leonardo's will with all the works in his masters possession in Cloux. These were mainly drawings and manuscripts, and included the extraordinary anatomical drawings Leonardo had prepared for a projected treatise, which are now in The Royal Library at Windsor Castle, presently the subject of a scholarly exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
In his monograph on the subject, M.A. Gukovsky (Kolombina, Saint Petersburg, 1963, pp. 35-45) lists some seven possible versions of the composition, including the Hermitage picture; one formerly in the Holford collection, England; one in Blois, Musée des beaux-arts (possibly by a French hand); an exceedingly weak version, ex-Paris, Baranowicz collection; and three untraced pictures, earlier recorded in the collections of Lord Northbrook, the Duke of Sutherland (at Stafford House) and Lord Kinnaird, at Rossie Priory). It is not impossible that the present version was once in one of those three collections. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries versions are recorded in the Melford-Orléns, Saint-Simon and Guenier collections.
The composition is indebted to the pose of the Madonna in the Burlington House Cartoon by Leonardo (London, National Gallery), with the proper right arm of 'la Columbine' cupped in her lap, and her head turned gracefully to her proper left. The question of repetition in Leonardo's studio is an as-yet-unresolved one, although the recent discovery of a studio version of the Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid, has shed new light on the question. It seems certain that some works by Leonardo's pupils were traced directly from fullscale cartoons, while others were freely inspired by the master's drawings; Giampietrino and Melzi are amongst the artists who seem to have practiced the latter approach. The quality of the present work is extremely fine, and can be placed close to the Hermitage version in its degree of primacy.