Issue Number: 112
The National Gallery is preparing to launch the biggest ever show of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings, along with over 50 of his drawings. Michael Craig-Martin RA reflects on the artist’s legacy and explains why his time in Milan was the making of him.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has always seemed to me to stand as a unique figure in the history of art. His lifetime overlapped with those of Botticelli, Carpaccio, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian; yet even in this age of creative giants he seems separate. His talents were prodigious. In our own age we have understandably been captivated by the range and foresight of his scientific studies, his engineering proposals and his explorations of human anatomy. His work reminds us that there was a time when the visual arts were understood to be at the centre of the expanding understanding of every field of human knowledge from philosophy to science, mathematics and architecture.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine)', c.1489-90, Property of the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow on deposit at the National Museum in Cracow/© Princes Czartoryski Foundation. ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ explores the fertile period while he was working for the ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. The show will put aside his many other accomplishments to focus on the work that he always considered his most important: his paintings. It will constitute the most complete display of his surviving paintings ever held and will afford us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Leonardo saw himself as a philosopher-painter. His speculations on nature, science and art were expressed in two principal forms – his drawings and his writings. He produced both copiously throughout his life. He reserved his grandest ambitions for his paintings; but his impatience with himself, his self-critical nature and his constant sense that he had not fully realised his intentions, made him notoriously unable to bring things to completion. He may have made no more than 20 paintings in his lifetime, of which between 15 and 17 are said to survive. Of the less familiar paintings among the nine on show, the exquisite portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (c.1489-90) is perhaps the most striking, her beautifully graceful face strangely echoed by that of the ermine she holds, the attention of both intensely held by something we can only imagine.
The exhibition will also show more than 50 of Leonardo’s drawings related to the paintings. He was always interested in techniques and processes and made drawings using pen and ink, pencil, metalpoint, silverpoint and chalk. Unlike many artists of the time, he rarely made drawings that refer directly to finished paintings, but there are many that can be seen to have anticipated aspects of specific paintings. There are quick sketches, some clearly done from life. There are drawings of men and women, babies, youths, mature adults, and elderly people. Some portraits seem natural, some idealised, others can be seen as virtual caricatures. They show Leonardo’s unique achievements in extending the expressive range and subtlety of facial expression and gesture in figure drawing. There are examples of his detailed studies of human skulls and internal body systems, studies for landscapes, animals, plants. And finally there are the late chalk drawings, quite different in character from the earlier ones in metalpoint. These highly modelled drawings manifest a quality of enhanced presence usually only found in paintings. This can be seen especially in the Study of Hands (c.1490) and in the National Gallery’s own masterpiece, the Leonardo cartoon, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (c.1499-1500), previously in the Royal Academy’s collection.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Study of Hands', c.1490. Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I once heard a scientist remark that perhaps the principal function of mankind was to bear witness to the universe, to be here precisely to see in the night sky the light of long dead stars, and in so doing to give completion and meaning. Leonardo would, I think, have recognised that view of man’s place in the order of things. He believed the role of the artist was to explore God’s design as revealed in the orderly and universal truths of nature and expressed through the vehicle of painting.
At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to the sculptor-painter Andrea del Verrocchio, who introduced him to a tradition where everything in a painting, from the principal figures to the leaves on the trees, was accorded an equal right to the artist’s attention. Leonardo’s early work reflects this training. His meticulous studies played an important part particularly in the early paintings when he believed painting to be ‘the sole imitator of all the manifest works of Nature’.
Throughout his career, his decisions as a painter were informed by his theories of art, and these changed over time. As he grew to maturity during his time in Milan, Leonardo moved away from the idea that ‘everything matters’ and that painting should ‘hold a mirror to Nature’. He wanted his paintings to encompass natural appearances while simultaneously transcending them. He considered it possible to arrive at a higher order of experience, to achieve the essence of perfection, through a kind of pictorial fiction. Leonardo believed that painting could surpass Nature.
It is this attempt, I feel sure, to achieve transcendence in painting that gives Leonardo’s great late works – The Last Supper, the London version of the Virgin of the Rocks and the Mona Lisa (made after his period in Milan) – their strangely compelling character, both seductive and distancing, familiar and foreign. Everything in these paintings – light and shade, the subdued colour, the facial expressions and gestures of the figures, the mathematically ordered structures – is focused on the realisation of a single overall reality.
It was in Milan in the early 1490s, as exhibition curator Luke Syson says in his brilliant catalogue essay, that ‘Leonardo combined those ingredients he regarded as essential (sometimes simply the most beautiful) to generate things – plants, landscapes, people – which are even more perfect, more completely themselves, than Nature had made; closer, it could be said, to their Platonic ideal. It is now that the ingredient identified by Vasari as 'divine grace' is introduced.
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan The National Gallery, London, 020 7747 2885, 9 Nov–5 Feb, 2012.