Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery
An unmissable exhibition bringing together nine of the artist's 15 surviving works
Leonardo da Vinci was not a prolific artist. In a career that lasted nearly half a century, he probably painted no more than 20 pictures, and only 15 surviving paintings are currently agreed to be entirely his. Of these, four are incomplete. Indeed one painting, abandoned by the artist but currently hanging in the National Gallery, is so far from being finished that the two figures in it, that of Saint Jerome and the lion in the wilderness (c 1488-90, Pinacoteca Vaticana, pictured below), have been barely touched by paint.
Yet the aged saint’s musculature, the way the taut sinews of his neck are exposed as he pulls his head to one side and stretches out his right arm, have been delineated and modelled with such intricate care that it seems obvious that this was the part that most interested the artist.
Uncharacteristically, Jerome is shown beardless, whilst the right hand that clutches the rock with which he is about to pummel his chest, is held not, as convention dictates, to his breast, but farthest from it.
The gesture is compositionally dynamic, since the outlines of the saint’s body are echoed by the lion at his feet – both jaws are agape, and the heads of beast and man meet in a diagonal line. Yet the dramatic gesture does something else. The saint’s posture allowed Leonardo to explore pictorially what he had investigated as an anatomist. Anatomical and écorché studies of the skull and neck of an old man feature in this exhibition, and although they are not direct studies for the unfinished painting, the treatment of the muscles of the neck is very similar. Once his pictorial investigations were complete, there is every chance that Leonardo’s restless intellect wanted to move on.
In fact, Leonardo was fairly notorious for not completing commissions, and there are stories of wrangles with dissatisfied customers. He is also known to have been a terrible procrastinator – paintings would often be worked on in fits and starts, often stretching over several years. The Virgin of the Rocks, for instance, the version owned by the National Gallery, was started in about 1491-2 but wasn’t completed until 1506-8. However, the angel’s pointing finger, seen in the earlier Louvre version (pictured below, c 1483-5), is missing in the London version, suggesting that, rather than a change in composition, it may not have been completed, after all, even after that 14 year gap.
For Leonardo, it wasn't the craft of painting that held the most fascination, but the investigation into observable nature and its underlying principles. Painting as a profession was subordinate to the service of intellectual enquiry, and many of his drawings serve not as preparatory sketches for works of art, but to illustrate other interests - in engineering, in hydraulics, in anatomy, in optics. The sheer scope of his intellect can be found in his notebooks - thousands of pages in his close mirror writing.
Yet the National Gallery’s exhibition is the first ever to concentrate solely on Leonardo as a painter, not as a scientist or engineer or inventor of proto-helicopters and war tanks. And in so doing it brings together nine paintings produced in the years which saw him radically break with convention, introducing a startling naturalism to portraiture and bringing a dream-like, numinous quality to religious subject matter. These are the years in which he served as a court painter to Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro (“the Moor”), in the last two decades of the 15th century.
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