Leonardo Da Vinci at National Gallery suggests painting hit perfection in 15th century

By Mark Sheerin | 08 November 2011
An image of a Renaissance woman carrying a white ferret
Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine) (circa 1489–90)© Princes Czartoryski Foundation
Exhibition: Leonardo Da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London, until February 5 2012

Although arguably invented by Leonardo in the 15th century, the mimetic portrait is an enduring pleasure. There are three captured likenesses in this blockbuster that will, if given a moment or two, make the queues and the hype appear all worthwhile.

The first example is Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician) who, to paraphrase a cliché, has eyes which appear to follow unseen people round an unseen room beyond the picture plane.

Then there are the pursed lips of Portrait of a Woman (The Belle Ferronnière) and the way her smoulder infects the very air around the frame. Neither work stops at physiognomic form; they give us personality and mood to match the features.

Most stunning of all is Portrait of Celcilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine). In this fantastical work, a 16-year-old girl holds a white ferret. But even she appears to see the comic side of this as the faintest traces of amusement play on her face.

You get the feeling all three figures have been totally engaged by their sessions with the polymathic painter. And in a poem about the latter painting written before 1492, Bernardo Belliscioni states "…this suffices for us,/Now to understand what is nature and what art." In other words there was nothing left to do in the field of art, and it was not yet 1500.

The grain of truth in this grand claim is one reason why Leonardo remains a titan in these times and why, the day before this show opened, advance ticket queues were already snaking round the auditorium of the Sainsbury Wing.

Shows like this are like rare celestial events which come past only once in a lifetime, comprising nearly every painting from the most important years of Leonardo's life. It puts his two Virgin of the Rocks paintings in the same room for possibly the first time ever.

But Leonardo is so much the consummate genius, lesser paintings shock us with their flaws. An unfinished Saint Jerome presents a bony grimace and a portrait of the rigors of sainthood we might rather not contemplate.

A breastfeeding Jesus turns a look of adult knowingness our way in Virgin and Child (The Madonna Litta). And a damaged face of Christ as Salvator Mundi appears, dare it be said, boss-eyed.

The secret of his success and occasional failure is in plain view here as the show pulls together 50 drawings he made. These exquisite studies, often in metalpoint, which allowed for no rubbing out, work like springboards for the painted works.

But the leaps were still enormous. Study of a Bear's Head is thought to have been his preparation for painting the aforementioned Ermine. So Leonardo brought his known talent for invention to the business of mimesis as well. Fans of the scientific Leonardo will not be disappointed by the numerous notebook pages on display.

Given their age and the fact that Leonardo wrote back to front, at times these codified jottings take on the aspect of holy texts. Indeed, his The Burlington House Cartoon aka The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the infant Saint John the Baptist appears to have been the subject of a pilgrimage in the painter's lifetime.

So this exhibition tugs Leonardo's reputation away from empirical science and back into the realms of faith and an unfeasibly high degree of inspiration. God given? Well, that's debatable.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday-Saturday, 7pm Sunday). Admission £16/£14. Exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

More pictures from the show:

A sepia toned preparatory sketch for the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
Study for a Last Supper (circa 1492)© Soprindendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Venezia
An oil painting of a woman in Renaissance clothing
Portrait of a Woman (La Belle Ferronnière) (circa 1493–4)© RMN / Franck Raux
An image of a Renaissance painting of a woman sitting on a beach holding a naked baby in a biblical-looking scene
Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Yarnwinder) (circa 1499 onwards)© The 10th Duke of Buccleuch and The Trustees of the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust Photo Antonia Reeve, courtesy the owner
An image of an oil painting of a man in Renaissance dress with a red skull hat
Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician) (circa 1486-7)© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca – Milan (99)
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