More than any other personality of Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci embodied the humanistic ideal of an all-round cultivated person. Born as out-of-wedlock (parents not legally married to each other) child of a maid, Leonardo rose to become one of the most influential artists of the time. He completed only 17 paintings that are undoubtedly his; however he invented solutions to all categories of artistic problems. Generations of artists who came after him benefited from these innovations.

His compositions produce an extraordinarily lively effect and appear harmonic and flowing. Typically, Leonardo created very fine modulations of light and shadow, especially with faces and background landscapes. His human beings express finely differentiated feelings. 

1501-12, oil on wood

Virgin and Child with St. Anne

As with many of his works, Leonardo left his paintings unfinished. St. Anne smiles tenderly upon her daughter, the Virgin Mary, who is sitting upon her lap. She, in turn, bends down with a hint of refrained anxiety towards her son, Jesus, who is playing with a lamb. This scene foreshadows his future role as the crucified Lamb of God. Leonardo has composed here a complicated group of people who seem to be in motion, and yet remain closely entwined. By arranging this composition in the Classical form of pyramid, he lent the picture tranquility and harmonic compactness. The wide, rocky landscape with mountains disappearing behind the blue fog reflect Leonardo’s close observation of nature.

Lady with Ermine, 1490, oil on woo

Lady with Ermine

The lady in the painting is believed to have been the lover of Duke Ludovico il Moro, at whose court Leonardo was active for many years as painter, sculptor and engineer. It is said that she was a gifted musician and spoke Latin fluently, and frequently attended philosophical meetings with scholars. This portrait appears very life-like not only because of the extremely fine details, but also because of the posture of beautiful young woman, which appears spontaneous. While she has turned her upper body to the left, she turns her head to the right as if something in that direction has caught her attention. In this way, Leonardo avoided the rigid profile or frontal view customary in portraiture at the time. The ermine is depicted very naturalistic-ally; it appears even more real because she touches it with her hand.

Embryo in the Womb, 1509-14, chalk, red pencil, pen, and ink on paper

Anatomical study: Embryo in the Womb

Leonardo was not satisfied with the drawing of nudes, which had become commonplace by the 15th century. In order to better understand how the body functioned, he dissected cadavers with highly regarded anatomists. He apparently planned to publish an illustrated handbook on anatomy, which, however, was never completed (just as his theses on the art of painting and engineering were not).

Head of Girl, Undated drawing

Head of Girl

Leonardo was a genius sketcher and drawer. He left innumerable sketches in notebooks as well as studies on sheets of paper-more than any other Renaissance artist. He regarded drawing as a means of research. For him it was a process of spiritual understanding and formal experimentation. Many of his sketches were drawn hastily; others he worked out with the finest detail. Most of his artistic projects are known to us only as drawing on paper.

In creating these figures, he always strove for ideal beauty.

Leonardo’s power of innovations was not limited to painting. He was driven relentlessly to discover how things worked. Always trying to go to the heart of things, he studied medicine, optics, anatomy, geology, cartography and biology. He left behind sketches and notebooks with thousands of closely written pages, which show his deep insights into natural phenomena and made him a founder of scientific illustrations.

Art was a science to Leonardo, one that he believed required the highest attention to detail and that was reflected entirely in the cosmos.

1495-97, dry fresco

The Last Supper

The 12 disciples have gathered around Christ for the last Passover meal before his crucifixion. Leonardo depicts the moment of greatest emotional tension, when Christ says, “One of you will betray me.” The apostles’ dramatic agitation travels like a wave down the table. To the left of Christ, Judas, the betrayer, pulls back in fear. Christ remains steadfast in the center and gestures with outstretched hands at the bread and wine, references to the Eucharist. Here, Leonardo combines various individual reactions, gestures, and temperaments into a single, unified composition. The central perspective in which the room is depicted focuses the viewer’s attention on the figure of Christ. Never before had the Last Supper been presented so dramatically. Leonardo painted with tempera and oil on dry wall, an experimental technique that did not endure. Despite many restoration attempts, only remnants of the original are preserved. Nevertheless, this composition has inspired artists from Rembrandt to Warhol.


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