Leonardo da Vinci’s talents and gifts were so massive, so encompassing and his contribution to the world so great, Art Wednesday will spend the next 4 Wednesdays to do his works and him justice.
Although Leonardo produced a relatively small number of paintings, many of which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an extraordinarily innovative and influential artist. During his early years, his style closely paralleled that of Verrocchio, but he gradually moved away from his teacher’s stiff, tight, and somewhat rigid treatment of figures to develop a more evocative and atmospheric handling of composition. The early The Adoration of the Magi introduced a new approach to composition, in which the main figures are grouped in the foreground, while the background consists of distant views of imaginary ruins and battle scenes.
Leonardo’s stylistic innovations are even more apparent in The Last Supper, in which he re-created a traditional theme in an entirely new way. Instead of showing the 12 apostles as individual figures, he grouped them in dynamic compositional units of three, framing the figure of Christ, who is isolated in the center of the picture. Seated before a pale distant landscape seen through a rectangular opening in the wall, Christ-who is about to announce that one of those present will betray him-represents a calm nucleus while the others respond with animated gestures. In the monumentality of the scene and the weightiness of the figures, Leonardo reintroduced a style pioneered more than a generation earlier by Masaccio, the father of Florentine painting.
The Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s most famous work, is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. This work is a consummate example of two techniques-sfumato and chiaroscuro-of which Leonardo was one of the first great masters. Sfumato is characterized by subtle, almost infinitesimal transitions between color areas, creating a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic smile. Chiaroscuro is the technique of modeling and defining forms through contrasts of light and shadow; the sensitive hands of the sitter are portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while color contrast is used only sparingly.
An especially notable characteristic of Leonardo’s paintings is his landscape backgrounds, into which he was among the first to introduce atmospheric perspective. The chief masters of the High Renaissance in Florence, including Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Fra Bartolommeo, all learned from Leonardo; he completely transformed the school of Milan; and at Parma, Correggio’s artistic development was given direction by Leonardo’s work.
Leonardo had continually studied the structure of the body in order to be able to depict the human figure properly. In 1510 in Pavia, Leonardo and Marcantonio della Torre, a professional anatomist at the University of Pavia, started dissecting corpses. This collaboration raised Leonardo’s research to a higher scientific level that showed itself in the quality of his drawings. In these studies it is no longer merely a question of discovering what physically exists; instead, the interplay of bones, muscles and tendons comes to fore.
After Marcantonio della Torre died of the plague in 1511, Leonardo’s practical opportunities for pursuing an intensive examination of corpses probably diminished, but the structure of the human body continued to interest him in his drawings.
The study of embryos is one of Leonardo’s most impressive anatomical drawings. However, it is certain that Leonardo did not dissect a pregnant corps; instead he applied his examinations of animal embryos to humans.
This celebrated drawing, probably the most famous by Leonardo, of a man with an athletic physique inscribed within a circle and a square illustrates the measurements of the ideal human body according to the rules of the Roman architect Vitruvius’s De Architectura (first century B.C.).
Leonardo left hundreds of notebooks filled with drawings in which he explored ideas, compositions, or inventions. His curiosity led him to sketch and puzzle out diverse subjects, such as running water, growing plants, and human anatomy.
The sheet includes studies from a number of years. The note “book on water to Mr. Marcho Ant” refers to the anatomical expert Marcantonio della Torre, who died in Pisa in 1511 and with whom Leonardo carried out dissections of human bodies. This drawing of the fetus was the result of knowledge rather than direct observation of nature. Leonardo had examined the fetus of a cow and allowed his observations of the placenta to influence this drawing.
Next week, Art Wednesday featuring Part 3 of Leonardo da Vinci.
On the Web:
Da Vinci Decoded Article from The Guardian
References for the Art Wednesday 4-part series:
My personal notes and papers when I was working at the Louvre, Paris completing my Master of Arts and my international art master’s degree.
Frank Zollner (2003). Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Taschen.
Martin Kemp (2004). Leonardo. Oxford University Press.
Theophilus (1963). On Divers Arts. U.S.: University of Chicago Press.
Angela Ottino della Chiesa (1967). The Complete Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Penguin Classics of World Art series.
Fritjof Capra (2007). The Science of Leonardo. U.S.: Doubleday.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 2. London: William Heinemann.
Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1983.
Fred Bérence (1965). Léonard de Vinci, L’homme et son oeuvre. Somogy. Dépot légal 4° trimestre 1965.