Leonardo Da Vinci – National Gallery

AN exhibition focussing on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting opens at the National Gallery London on 9 November 2011 and has managed to persuade many galleries around the world to lend works for the show, although surprisingly the Louvre hasn’t lent the Mona Lisa.

Here’s the exhibition link:

Of the 18 paintings included in the exhibition, five were showstoppers and one made me wonder if it was really by Leonardo at all.

We visited the show first thing on a Sunday morning. Even so there was a queue around the building for that day’s tickets and inside the exhibition was very crowded. It made it difficult to get a good look at the paintings because they are mostly fairly small, but the effort was well worth it.

Leonardo’s technique was so refined that it is difficult to see what he was doing and how he achieved his effects without getting within a couple of feet of the works. This applies especially to the drawings, many of which are as small as, or smaller than postcard size. He must have had incredibly sharp vision to put so much detail into such small work.

“La Belle Ferroniere” 1490-94 is an oil painting on wooden panel. It appears a very simple composition of a beautiful young woman sitting at an angle, with her head turned towards the viewer. The flesh and features are painted with unbelievable delicacy. Look closely and you realize the face has no outline it just fades imperceptibly into the background, but her hair draped across her left cheek is surprisingly flat and lacking in detail. Has it been restored or was Leonardo only interested in painting the structure of the head and the texture of the skin?

“Lady with an Ermine” 1489-90 is also an oil on panel. She was Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke Ludovico who Da Vinci worked for. The composition is more complex, the body turned to the left and the head turned to the right. In her arms the young woman holds the ermine in the title and allows Leonardo to show his virtuosity in rendering fur as well as flesh and skin. As with La Ferroniere, the background is completely dark, focusing attention on the woman and her pet ermine, which in the 15th century was a symbol for purity. It is a wonderfully calm portrait, but the 15 year olds hand that holds the ermine seems huge in relation to her head and also very masculine. It is almost as though the painting is an assemblage of closely observed elements.

Apart from the figure of St Jerome himself, much of this painting was left at the under painting stage and is difficult to engage with.

By contrast the two paintings of “The Madonna of the Rocks” 1495-1508 are both highly finished despite their size, surely a sign that the studio assistants did much of the background painting? These are both great compositions with beautifully painted women and strangely unpleasant images of babies. Why was it that so many Renaissance artists struggled to paint convincing babies and children?


My final highlight is another Virgin and child, with a goldfinch nestling between them (a symbol of Christ’s passion and the crucifixion). The painting is tempera on canvas and the colours are sharp and clear. The Virgin wears blue and red robes and behind her the wall of the chamber has two windows showing a glimpse of the outside world – an Italian landscape. It is a far more tender image than the much grander Virgin of the Rocks and is extremely detailed thanks to the use of tempera which must be applied in individual strokes as used in fresco painting, quite different from oil painting technique.

Andrew Graham Dixon questions whether the Virgin is by Leonardo himself and also questions the authenticity of the recently discovered “Salvator Mundi”. For me this work is painted in strange ghostlike colours and lacking the sharpness of vision seen in all the other works. The colours are most unrealistic and the contrast range is very flat. If it is indeed a genuine Leonardo, it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t gone through some over enthusiastic restoration in the past and that what we see is at best the under painting for a work. It is understandable that the pressure to authenticate it as a genuine Da Vinci is immense because of the commercial value of such a rare commodity.

Finally, I found the room devoted to the Last Supper strangely fascinating. There was a life-sized facsimile of the original, but hung low enough to look at in detail. There was also a copy borrowed from Oxford that is not brilliantly painted, but which does show much of the detail that has been lost forever in the original and a number of drawings that could be studies for the work.

Overall, you could say it was more like archaeology than an exhibition but interesting and well worth the visit.

Andrew Graham Dixon, in his review of the exhibition concluded: “The astonishing depth of anatomical and scientific research that underpinned all of his work as a painter – and distracted him from doing more of it – is also evident here, in a broad and vivid selection of his drawings and studies.

“He stands confirmed as one of the least prolific, yet most profoundly innovative artists who ever lived.” 

Praise indeed.



About rubisouth

Artist working in Surrey UK.
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