Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan Sainsbury Wing
The National Gallery
November 9, 2011–February 5, 2012
Britain’s National Gallery’s exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is the most complete retrospective of the great Renaissance artist’s work ever held. Never before has it been possible to see so many of his precious masterpieces together. While many previous shows have looked at him as a scientist and inventor, the focus of this landmark London exhibition is purely on Leonardo’s talents as an artist. All the pictures on display were painted during Leonardo’s 18 years in Milan when he was court painter to the city’s ruler, Duke Ludovico Sforza. These were the most productive years of this peripatetic painter’s life.
The archetypal Renaissance man, da Vinci (1452-1519) was an extraordinary polymath. Unfortunately this undisputed genius was notoriously unreliable when it came to fulfilling commissions. He grew bored with the physical task of painting once he had solved the intellectual problems of content and composition and so left many paintings incomplete. There was something definitely magical about his gifts but while his younger contemporary Michelangelo energetically painted the Sistine Chapel, sculpted the Pietas and his David, designed St Peters and also composed innumerable poems, Leonardo worked on only 20 paintings in all, several of which were never completed.
There now exist only 14 of his paintings anywhere in the world and nine of these are on display at the exhibition. It took five years to assemble these rare surviving masterpieces from museums in Poland, Milan, St Petersburg, Paris and the Vatican. There is no Mona Lisa – it was painted much later, in Florence– and no Last Supper, which is a mural painted on the refectory wall of the Santa Mariadelle Grazie in Milan.
Very few great artists drew as much and painted as little as Leonardo. Featured with the nine beautiful paintings in this exceptional show are some 54 of his amazing drawings, including the monumental Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (sometimes called The Burlington House Cartoon). Several works by pupils and followers that reveal Leonardo’s tremendous impact are also displayed.
Leonardo transformed portraiture from the rigidly statuesque into something breathing, thinking, and moving: an art that could make living people immortal. Before his unconventional Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci — painted while he was still in Florence and so his earliest preserved work — it was customary to depict aristocratic women in strict profile. Leonardo initiated the three-quarter pose and introduced his characteristic technique of sfumato — the soft, “smoky” handling of paint and outline that makes forms merge into one another. The effect of his innovative approach was both mystery and astonishing realism in his pictures.
The Lady with an Ermine has been acclaimed as the first truly modern portrait. In this most exquisite of paintings, 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, the beloved mistress of Sforza, cradling her unusual pet (the ermine was his emblem) turns her head as if to listen. The National Gallery has made this celebrated beauty the poster girl for the exhibition. Luke Syson, the curator of this National Gallery show, calls The Lady in Ermine “the crown jewel of Leonardo’s very, very, small surviving oeuvre … one of the great milestones in the history of art.” He sees it as “one of those moments where suddenly an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary hand achieves a leap forward.” He believes that this painting represents the arrival of psychological depth in portraiture. “Before this Leonardo was still obeying certain conventions that he had learnt. This is the moment when his ambition to show the essence of a human being, both on the outside and the inside, suddenly comes into its own.”
Another stunning portrait in the exhibition, the so-called La Belle Ferronniere, is that of Sforza’s slighted wife Beatrice d’Este. Taut against an impenetrable black background, she looks disdainfully at the viewer. According to the catalogue, “Leonardo has so idealised her features that she may also be regarded as a perfect beauty based on ideas of divine geometry. Her static pose behind a plinth-like parapet suggest Leonardo may have intended the work to provoke comparisons with portrait sculpture. Despite the three dimensions of sculpture, Leonardo believed that painting could be more “real’.”
Leonardo’s only surviving male portrait, his 1485 Portrait of a Young Man: The Musician, captures a sense of movement. Positioned in a three-quarter pose, the anonymous musician in a red cap stares with his moist eyes at something outside the spectator’s field of vision. From the hint of mobility about his lips and the song sheet in his hand, it seems he has just finished singing.
The impetus behind this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, and its great climatic moment, is the two versions of the marvelous Virgin of the Rocks, one from the Louvre, the other, newly restored, from the National Gallery, united here for the first time. Both paintings depict the Virgin, the Christ Child and the infant Saint John the Baptist in a grotto in the wilderness. In the words of Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, “This is a juxtaposition that was almost certainly not seen even in Leonardo’s own lifetime, nor at any time since, and one that is unlikely ever to be repeated”.
An unfinished St Jerome in the Wilderness, lent by the Vatican, reveals Leonardo’s interest in both human anatomy and spirituality. Two other superb sacred art pictures in the exhibition are the Madonna Litta from The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and the Madonna of the Yarn-Winder in which the Christ Child turns in his mother’s lap to contemplate the crucifix shape made by her yarn winder.
In the last room of this blockbuster exhibition is the much debated Salvator Mundi or Saviour of the World. This painting depicts Christ with one hand raised in blessing and the other cradling a rock crystal orb which represents the universe. Once owned by King Charles I, it vanished into obscurity and was sold in 1958 for just 45 pounds. Recently authenticated as genuine, this long lost da Vinci picture could now sell for as much as 200 million US dollars, a world record.
The Last Supper, Leonardo’s most ambitious work in Milan, is immovable. It began to fade soon after it was completed and was within 20 years a ruin. On display in this National Gallery exhibition is the earliest full scale copy made before this great masterpiece began to deteriorate. Painted by Leonardo’s sympathetic pupil Giampietrino, this almost 8-metre long copy loaned by the Royal Academy is an invaluable record of what has been lost.