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Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, The National Gallery of Art, London, November 9, 2011 – February 5, 2012

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of a Young Man (‘The Musician’), about 1486-7, oil on walnut, 44.7 x 32 cm,  Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca – Milan (99). © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Milano/De Agostini Picture Library .

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of a Young Man (‘The Musician’), about 1486-7, oil on walnut, 44.7 x 32 cm, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca – Milan (99). © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Milano/De Agostini Picture Library .

The crowds begin as one approaches the rear of the building: a long line, snaking back on itself contains those hopeful of gaining one of the 500 tickets on sale each day; further on, is a smaller queue of the luckier ones who had snapped up all the online tickets during the first three days of sale. Overall, the crowds are well behaved—for this is England—and approach their goal with good humor and a touch of the spirit of Dunkirk as they descend upon the National Gallery’s runaway success, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan. It is not a large show, only some sixty paintings and drawings, but then Leonardo only began a score of paintings in a career spanning four decades. Of those paintings, fifteen autograph works survive, and four of these are generally deemed incomplete. To assemble almost every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milanese period in London is a notable achievement, and these works are supplemented by others associated with his followers and sometime collaborators in the most sustained period of productivity in the artist’s life.

The great Swiss art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin, once observed that Leonardo’s mural of the Last Supper was “a Florentine work, accidentally painted in Milan”. It’s a memorable phrase, but his emphasis upon Florence as the crucible of the Renaissance distorts the picture: it was only by abandoning his native city for the duchy of Milan that Leonardo emerged as the titan we now know. It was, in fact, the court culture of Milan that gave Leonardo both security of tenure and exposure to official and private commissions that would not have otherwise come his way, and it must have been congenial to him since he spent almost half his career in that city. Introduced by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Milan’s de facto ruler, Ludovico Maria Sforza, Leonardo offered his services in a famous letter highlighting his virtuosity as an engineer and architect, as a maker of weapons of war and of sculpture, with the role of painter listed almost as an afterthought. Fortunately, Ludovico quickly appreciated how much better Leonardo was as a painter than the local talent, and so did his potential rivals.

Leonardo is documented in Milan by 1483, and this is the moment at which the London exhibition opens. The first gallery’s theme is “the musician in Milan”, referring to Leonardo’s virtuosity on the lyre as a backdrop to his early Portrait of a Musician (1486-87) from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan (fig. 1). The young musician’s three-quarter profile emerges from a dark background. The formula reflects Leonardo’s absorption of the lessons of Netherlandish artists like Jan Van Eyck or his Italian imitator, Antonello da Messina, artists whose works he probably knew from the collections of his Florentine patrons. What makes it stand out are, however, are the sitter’s luminous eyes and sensitive expression, which contrast jarringly with his unfinished torso. As with many Renaissance portraits, the sitter is shown holding an object, in this case a musical motet as an indication of his learning and status; the painting’s label goes so far as to suggest it may be a portrait of a young musician named Atalante Migliorotti, who accompanied the painter on his journey from Florence to Milan. Be that as it may, the painting stands out against more conventional portraits of Ludovico Sforza by the Milanese Ambrogio de Predis or of a young man by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio also seen in this gallery. They bracket Leonardo’s work, effectively illustrating how much he towered above his contemporaries. Like a number of his Milanese compositions, the Portrait of a Musician is unfinished, but what is manifest is an uncanny quality to evoke a state of mind through tonal nuance. This is a technique known as sfumato, in which the colors appear to emerge from smoke, and Leonardo had begun to explore it in an earlier Florentine work, The Adoration of the Magi, that he abandoned in 1481, just prior to his arrival in Milan. It was in his Milanese period that Leonardo became a master of sfumato and sought to portray, not only the external features of his subjects, but also their innermost thoughts.

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), about 1489–90, oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Property of the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow on deposit at the National Museum in Cracow. © Princes Czartoryski Foundation

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), about 1489–90, oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Property of the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow on deposit at the National Museum in Cracow. © Princes Czartoryski Foundation

The artist’s rapid development is shown in the next gallery, dedicated to the theme of portraits of women. It is dominated by two remarkable essays in this vein, the Belle Ferronnière from the Louvre and Cecilia Gallerani, also known as the Lady with an Ermine, on loan from the Czartoryski Foundation in Poland (figs. 2-3). Both were executed around the middle of Leonardo’s first Milanese period, and they derive from a court culture that celebrated beauty. Cecilia Gallerani had become the mistress of Ludovico Sforza around 1489, at the age of fifteen, and she sat to Leonardo shortly thereafter. The result is an astonishing likeness, which uses light to sculptural effect, projecting the subject’s left shoulder, face, and enlarged, no doubt idealised, right hand holding the fanciful ermine. The turn of the figure is reminiscent of Leonardo’s studies for religious paintings—a pen sketch of Mary Magdalen with a jar of ointment from the Courtauld Gallery of London is shown nearby—suggestive of the artist’s ambitious merging of genres in a quest for more animated portraiture. The Lady with an Ermine is far removed from Leonardo’s earlier Florentine works, both more monumental and more compelling. By contrast, the Belle Ferronnière of 1493-94 is a more intimate image, understated and concerned with conveying a mood. The painting could stand cleaning; yet even through the layers of discoloured varnish and retouching, one can appreciate the luminosity of the face, the delicate shading of the left cheek, and the smoldering look of the eyes. Leonardo again adapted Netherlandish conventions by placing the sitter in an indeterminate space behind a parapet, but he has turned the torso on a diagonal while swivelling the head back towards the spectator. This conveys a minimal sense of movement to the composition; yet it is the sensitivity of his treatment of the face that gives the portrait its allure, bridging his first Milanese works and the great achievements of the 1490s, such as the heads of the Apostles from the Last Supper and the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks.

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519),  Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), about 1493–4, oil on walnut, 63 x 45 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (778). © RMN / Franck Raux.

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), about 1493–4, oil on walnut, 63 x 45 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (778). © RMN / Franck Raux.

Another of Leonardo’s incomplete works of this period is the subject of the next room, entitled “Body and Soul: St. Jerome in Penitence”. It forms a nice contrast to the quest for ideal beauty of the female portraits.

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Saint Jerome, about 1488–90,  oil on walnut, 103 x 75 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City (40337). © Photo Vatican Museums.

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Saint Jerome, about 1488–90, oil on walnut, 103 x 75 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City (40337). © Photo Vatican Museums.

The Vatican’s St. Jerome (1488-90) resembles a large drawing with patches of muted color (fig. 4). An experimental work, the painting resembles the underdrawing of The Adoration of the Magi some eight years earlier although here the subject is a remarkable fusion of physiognomy and passion. The head and throat of the saint appear almost flayed like an écorché, as if the artist were peeling away layers of flesh to reveal the core underneath. This line of inquiry is suggested by the inclusion of a small selection of anatomical drawings and studies of skulls made during the same years; they provide a fascinating counterpoint to the studies that informed the St. Jerome. There is also a perspective drawing for a church façade similar to the one seen in the background of the painting, a work that shows Leonardo conversant with progressive ideas in architecture, possibly a reflection of his involvement with the great painter-architect Donato Bramante in ecclesiastical commissions for Ludovico Sforza. Despite its incomplete state, the St. Jerome remains a powerfully compelling work; it subjects the protagonist and his lion to a raking light against a fantastic rocky landscape reminiscent of the more problematic altarpiece of The Virgin of the Rocks.

Fig. 5 Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483 – about 1485, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 199 x 122 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (777). © RMN / Franck Raux.
Fig. 5 Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483 – about 1485, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 199 x 122 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (777). © RMN / Franck Raux. Click image to enlarge.

Fig. 6 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin of the Rocks, about 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, Oil on poplar, thinned and cradled, 189.5 x 120 cm, © The National Gallery, London (NG 1093)

Fig. 6 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin of the Rocks, about 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, Oil on poplar, thinned and cradled, 189.5 x 120 cm, © The National Gallery, London (NG 1093). Click image to enlarge.

Mention of this last work leads to the fulcrum of the exhibition, the gallery devoted to one of Leonardo’s most complicated commissions: the two versions of an altarpiece painted for the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception (figs. 5-6). Suffice it to say that the initial contract for this painting, drawn up in 1483, was only deemed fulfilled after the passage of twenty-five years and two versions of the altarpiece had been created by Leonardo and a group of associates. Of the two, one, undoubtedly the earlier, is now in the Louvre while the other is in the National Gallery of London. Both paintings are related compositionally and show the Virgin, Christ Child, infant St. John the Baptist, and an angel seated amidst luxuriant growths of flowers and foliage and against an extraordinary backdrop of rock formations and water. The presence of both in London was a major triumph for this exhibition and marked the first time they could be compared since their inception. Having said that, comparison was not easy: the Paris version was cased in perspex and shrouded by layers of varnish, which turned the surface orange and caused the lighting to bounce off of it.1 In many ways, it is easier to see the work in photographs rather than standing in front of it, but being able to move back and forth between the two was an instructive pleasure. The Louvre version is somewhat smaller and broader, the London panel being taller and slimmer. Similarly, the landscape in the Louvre version suggests an inventive and exploratory approach to its creation that is lacking in its London counterpart. The figures in the Louvre painting are smaller in proportion to the background, and while both groups form a pyramidal composition, the London group is tauter, more monumental, indeed, marmoreal in aspect. The London painting can be understood as a critique of the earlier version, having been executed largely through the 1490s and early 1500s. When viewed together, they indicate the divide between Leonardo’s art in the early 1480s and that of the turn of the sixteenth century. Out of the London version and a contemporary work like the Burlington House Cartoon (fig. 7) issued the great Madonna and Child compositions of Michelangelo and Raphael a few years later. The impact of Leonardo’s evolved style was revolutionary upon his younger rivals, and both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks underscore that this new style was forged in Milan, not Florence or Rome.

Fig. 8 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin and Child (‘The Madonna Litta’), about 1491–5, Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood , 42 x 33 cm, © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. 2011. (GE-249). Photo by Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets

Fig. 8 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin and Child (‘The Madonna Litta’), about 1491–5, Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood , 42 x 33 cm, © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. 2011. (GE-249). Photo by Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets

One of the many pleasures of this exhibition is the new light it casts upon an old theme. One room is devoted to a celebrated Virgin and Child composition of this period, the Madonna Litta from the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg and similar works inspired by Leonardo. Although the Madonna Litta was long considered one of the great essays by Leonardo on this theme, doubt has been cast upon its autograph status. Seeing the work flanked by related drawings, as here, the doubting makes sense: unusually for Leonardo, the painting is in tempera not oil, which by itself would argue against his authorship.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a woman, about 1488–90, Metalpoint heightened with white on pale blue prepared paper, 17.9 x 16.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Arts Graphiques (2376), © RMN / Thierry Le Mage

Fig. 8 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a woman, about 1488–90, Metalpoint heightened with white on pale blue prepared paper, 17.9 x 16.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Arts Graphiques (2376), © RMN / Thierry Le Mage

While clearly deriving from a beautiful metalpoint drawing by Leonardo (fig. 8), the head of the Madonna Litta seems flat and lacking in nuance when juxtaposed with this unquestionably autograph work. The other drawings of the head of the Christ Child and a drapery study have been ascribed to one of Leonardo’s best pupils, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, and a comparison with other paintings by Boltraffio on view in London tends to strengthen this attribution. When viewed in aggregate, these Madonna compositions by Boltraffio, Francesco Napolitano, and Marco d’Oggiono, to name only three, call to mind Kenneth Clark’s bon mot that “for most people the Milanese school [of Leonardo] is like the Cheshire cat—only the smile remains”. Still, the presence of these artists in the exhibition reveals the impact that Leonardo had upon Milanese art during his time there.

Fig. 9 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards, Oil on walnut, 65.5 x 45.1 cm, Private collection, © 2011 Salvator Mundi, LLC., Photo Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Fig. 9 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards, Oil on walnut, 65.5 x 45.1 cm, Private collection, © 2011 Salvator Mundi, LLC., Photo Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

One novelty of the exhibition is the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi (fig. 9), which is confidently put forward here as an original by Leonardo around 1499-1500. The grounds for this are circumstantial in that Wenceslaus Hollar made an etching after a painting of this subject in 1650, which was identified as by Leonardo. However, the poor state of the panel makes certainty in this case impossible, for the face has suffered major losses and retouchings. It is an interesting object but a wreck; there are some thirty versions of this painting extant—which makes one wonder why this particular version must be right. By the same token, a small panel known as the Madonna of the Yarnwinder in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch is also advanced here to semi-autograph status, but it is an insipidly painted work, albeit inspired by drawings from Leonardo himself. When seen next to the celebrated Burlington House Cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the infant St. John the Baptist (fig. 7), such items pale into insignificance. Still, the thrust of the exhibition and its highly informative catalogue by Luke Syson and his collaborators make a strong case for seeing this most glorious drawing of the High Renaissance as a late flowering of Leonardo’s first Milanese period rather than a production of his second Florentine sojourn.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’), about 1499–1500, Charcoal (and wash?) heightened with white chalk on paper, mounted on canvas,  141.5 x 104.6 cm, © The National Gallery, London, Purchased with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust, and through a public appeal organised by The Art Fund, 1962 (NG6337)

Fig. 7 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’), about 1499–1500, Charcoal (and wash?) heightened with white chalk on paper, mounted on canvas, 141.5 x 104.6 cm, © The National Gallery, London, Purchased with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust, and through a public appeal organised by The Art Fund, 1962 (NG6337)

Superlatives fail when judging Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. The range and quality of works is extremely high, and museums and private collectors have been generous with their loans. Above all, it is refreshing to see such an ambitious, scholarly project, one which manages to have something fresh to say about a well worn subject and which rescues Leonardo the artist from the contemporary fascination for “Da Vinci”, the cross-dressing cryptologist of Dan Brown’s imagination.

  1. The recent contretemps around the Louvre’s conservation of another painting by Leonardo, The Virgin, Child, and St. Anne, may have stalled plans for cleaning its version of The Virgin of the Rocks. On this see the recent article in London newspaper The Guardian, December 28, 2011. The London version of The Virgin of the Rocks was the subject of a moderate cleaning in 2008-09, which included the removal of varnish from an earlier intervention in 1948-49. The varnish applied to the surface at that time had darkened badly, leading to an accumulation of surface dirt, which has now been removed; this has allowed the original color balance of the painting to become visible. One of the revelations of this investigation was that the marmoreal quality of the skin tones of the London panel was a deliberate choice by Leonardo, and it consisted primarily of white pigment with small quantities of vermilion, red lake and black pigment over a monochromatic understructure. On this see L. Keith, A. Roy, R. Morrison, and P. Schade, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks: Treatment, Technique, and Display,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 32, London, 2001, pp. 32-56, esp. pp. 46-47.

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