No information is available as to the destination of the painting and who it was commissioned by. Still in the sketch state it is one of the most enigmatic works of the great Tuscan painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and philosopher. The earliest mention of the St Jerome dates in fact to the beginning of the 19th century, when it is attributed to Leonardo, in the will of the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffmann. On Kauffmann's death all trace of it again disappeared, until it was found by chance and purchased by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. According to tradition the cardinal discovered the painting divided into two parts: the lower part in the shop of a Roman second-hand dealer where it formed the cover of a box, and that with the head of the saint at the shop of his shoe-maker who had used it to make the cover of his stool. Over and above the story, the painting can really be seen to be cut into five parts. On the death of the cardinal the picture was auctioned and sold a number of times until it was identified and purchased for Pius IX (pontiff from 1846 to 1878) for the Vatican Pinacoteca (1856).
The attribution of the work proposed by Kauffmann has always met with the agreement of scholars due to the obvious similarities to the other works of the maestro and in particular the Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Uffizi Gallery).