I am very tired and currently on a rather bumpy train, but I want to write about this while it’s still reasonably fresh in my mind! Last night Mum, Dad, Dom and I went to the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition. “‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ is the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held. This unprecedented exhibition – the first of its kind anywhere in the world – brings together sensational international loans never before seen in the UK.” It has been extraordinarily popular and I was lucky to get tickets as they have been selling out very quickly. Although incredibly crowded and not, I think, optimally organised in terms of layout, it is an amazing exhibition and I strongly encourage anyone who is able to get to see it to do so.
Leonardo has been one of my very favourite artists since I first saw the Burlington House cartoon when I was about twelve years old. The tenderness in that drawing, the exquisite beauty of the characters, and the reverent hush of people viewing it, struck me then and has done on every viewing of it since then. Leonardo’s faces are, I think, some of the most absolutely beautiful, and I have a particular fondness for his female faces, so I was glad for an opportunity to see a number of portraits of women. The Lady With An Ermine is very well known and is quite lovely, but it was the Belle Ferronniere (pictured above) that really struck me. An idealised portrait of female beauty, this painting nonetheless has an arresting sense of personality. The look in her eyes is just remarkable. In the slope of her shoulders, the soft set of her mouth and chin, she looks demure, but her eyes are fierce. It is just fascinating.
One of the interesting things about the exhibition was that it also featured a great number of sketches by Leonardo - preparatory work for his great paintings - so you could see a lot about the process of his creation. There were also a number of images from his pupils and artists within the same circle in Milan. The overall impact of this was to give a sense of the extraordinarily dynamic and creative environment at the court of Ludovico Sforza. For instance, I had never seen any work by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s pupils, but in his exhibited work here you could see both his master’s influence and his own distinctive talent.
There were so many wonderful things to see that I can’t really list them all. It was fantastic to have the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the same room - one from 1483/5 and the other 1491/9. They are very similar paintings, but the developments in Leonardo’s style and also artistic ethos are clearly evident - the latter painting, with its more limited colour palette and the luminous skin of the four characters, shows a move away from realism to a depiction of the divine. The later painting is, I think, more beautiful than the first, although the baby Jesus of the earlier painting is adorably cuddly in a way the serene and glowing later Christ Child is not. (The icon I’m using for this entry is the face of the angel in the later painting.) Another interesting feature of having the work of Leonardo’s associates also on display was that near this painting was Boltraffio’s Head of a Youth with an Ivy Wreath, which was directly modelled after the face of the Virgin in Leonardo’s painting - but is tranformed into a young man. The similarity between the two faces is striking and is an interesting comment on the portrayal of youthful beauty in artistic circles in this period.
I could have spent so long in there, but sadly we eventually had to leave. I am very glad I went, and although the ticket prices are quite steep I think I definitely got value for money. Yay art!