Leonardo da Vinci: From cats to nudes, eight of his best drawings

By Culture24 Reporter | 07 January 2016

Some of Leonardo da Vinci’s finest drawings in the Royal Collection will travel from Windsor Castle to Newcastle for a major exhibition next month. From cats to avoiding a sack of nuts, here are eight of them

Studies of cats, lions and a dragon (circa 1513-18)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a cat
Pen and ink with wash over black chalk© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
One of the most charming of all of Leonardo's drawings, this feline work covers the full range of Da Vinci’s modes, from the most stylised and 'Leonardesque', in the coiling dragon, to the most acutely observed and unaffected, in the many studies of domestic cats.

The most detailed studies, at centre right, show the cats sleeping, and seem to have been done directly from the life, with the subject motionless; by contrast, the depictions of cats fighting had to be visualised on the basis of fleeting impressions.

In most of the fights it is difficult to discern which limb belongs to which cat, and in the study at lower centre he has drawn the two cats locked together as a single unit, almost symmetrical, in the manner of a Romanesque carving.

Surrounding the studies of domestic cats are seven drawings of a single lioness, mostly crouching or prowling. Lions were well enough known in Italy at the time – they were, for example, kept in a cage behind the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, as one of the symbols of the city.

Leonardo shows in these drawings a clear understanding of their anatomy and proportions. But the unifying interest of the sheet is revealed by Leonardo's short and incomplete note at the bottom: “Of flexion and extension / This animal species, of which the lion is the prince because of its spinal column which is flexible...”

A deluge (circa 1517-18)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a swirl
Pen and black ink with wash© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
A drawing of a dramatic flood in which the atmosphere above a wooded hill has materialised in a gigantic explosion, with jets of water shooting out from the centre. Square blocks of stone topple and fall from the sky. Above is a dark cloud from which jets of rain curl down.

There are some notes written close to the upper edge. A cataclysmic storm was one of Leonardo's favourite subjects during the last decade of his life, in both his drawings and his writings.

These were in principle studies towards his never-completed Treatise on Painting, but the obsessiveness with which he approached the subject reveals a deep-seated fascination with destruction. There are several long passages in which he describes with relish a huge storm overwhelming a landscape, and the futile struggles of man and animal against the forces of nature.

A male nude (circa 1504-5)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a nude man as seen from behind
Red chalk© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
This outstanding study of a male nude was part of Leonardo’s preparations for ‘The Battle of Anghiari’, a huge mural commissioned by the Florentine government. It is complemented by a set of charming drawings of a baby’s chubby limbs, which may have been a study for one of the paintings of the Madonna and Child that Leonardo produced early in his career.

Here the model spreads his legs equally to balance his weight distribution, and in other drawings from the same series he supported his arms by holding sticks so as to put no strain on the shoulder muscles. While it was important for expressive purposes to know how to draw the muscles in tension, it was just as important to know how to draw them when relaxed.

Leonardo stated in a note of the same period, perhaps with a sideswipe at contemporaries such as Luca Signorelli: “You should not make all the muscles of your figures conspicuous; even if they are shown in the correct place they should not be made too evident, unless the limbs to which they belong are engaged in the exertion of great force or labour; and the limbs that are not under strain should have no such display of musculature.

“If you do otherwise you will have produced a sack of nuts rather than a human figure.”

A map of the Arno east of Florence (1504)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a naval scene
Pen and ink with green and blue washes© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
In the summer of 1504 Leonardo surveyed the Arno near Florence and produced a number of maps of the river. The notes are in conventional script (unlike Leonardo’s usual mirror writing), and the maps are carefully finished with coloured washes.

This, and the emphasis here on the damage to the embankment where the water passes through a weir, suggest that the maps were commissioned by the Florentine government as surveys of territory that required civic maintenance.

The head of St Anne (circa 1510-15)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a woman in profile
Black chalk, wetted in places© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
A study for the head of St Anne in the painting of the Madonna and Child with St Anne and a lamb, now in the Louvre, Paris, which occupied Leonardo intermittently for the last two decades of his life.

The original commission may have come from the French king, Louis XII, after his occupation of Milan in 1499, and in time Leonardo evolved three separate full-size compositions, of which a cartoon (including the infant St John the Baptist, at the National Gallery) and a painting (the Louvre painting) survive in the original.

The painting was probably worked on slowly from around 1508 onwards, and was recorded in Leonardo's studio in France when he was visited by Cardinal Luigi of Aragon on October 10 1517.

On Leonardo’s death the painting, still unfinished in the foreground landscape and the lower drapery of St Anne, was inherited by his assistant Salaì; it reached the French royal collection in 1636, when it was presented to Louis XIII by Cardinal Richelieu.

Studies of an Infant (circa 1490)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of various infant limbs
Metalpoint, partly gone over with pen and ink, on pale buff prepared paper© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
This is a typically spontaneous page of life drawings from the first half of Leonardo's career. It is executed mainly in metalpoint on a pale pink prepared ground; though many of his metalpoint drawings have faded, the studies on this sheet must always have been rather faint, and Leonardo reinforced some of the outlines with strokes of pen.

The drawing has often been dated in the 1470s - Leonardo's first period in Florence - but the confident, fluent lines suggest a later date, when he was based in Milan, and indeed not long before he abandoned metalpoint in the early 1490s.

One of the most important artistic developments of the Renaissance was the growth in drawing from the life. The boom in book-printing during the late 15th century meant that paper was becoming rapidly cheaper, and thus did not need to be used so carefully. In painting in particular, an emphasis on invention and the artist's individual imagination was gradually supplanting a dominant concern with craftsmanlike skill and execution.

Many of Leonardo's drawings, throughout his life, cannot be connected with a particular project: he used drawing to develop his eye and hand, and as a tool to explore the world around him. And even where a connection exists, the drawing is often far removed from the final product – he would fill a page with spontaneous sketches, 'brainstorming' the project to stimulate new ideas.

Recto: The heart compared to a seed. Verso: The vessels of liver, spleen and kidneys (circa 1508)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of human organs
Pen and ink over black chalk© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
In a famous note probably of 1508, Leonardo described witnessing, in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the death of a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, whereupon Leonardo conducted an autopsy ‘to see the cause of so sweet a death’.

This double-sided sheet comes from the notebook compiled following that dissection, as an attempt to make sense of his findings; the actual dissection notes, which were presumably rapid, sketchy and stained with gore, do not survive.

While a grounding in human anatomy was a commonplace in the training of Renaissance artists, Leonardo was one of the few to conduct dissections himself (contrary to popular belief, properly regulated dissection was permitted by the Church). He first became seriously interested in the subject in the late 1480s, outlining a plan for a treatise on the subject and making a number of drawings based on a haphazard combination of animal dissection, human skeletal material and received wisdom.

Leonardo returned to the subject around 1505 with his studies of musculature for the Battle of Anghiari, and for the next eight years the study of anatomy became his most important scientific pursuit.

Expressions of fury in horses, a lion and a man; (Verso:) Notes and diagrams on astronomy and geometry, and the head of a horse (circa 1503-4)

An image of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of various horses
Recto: Pen and ink with wash and red chalk. Verso: Pen and ink with traces of black chalk© Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
In early 1503, Leonardo agreed to paint a huge mural of the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala del Gran Consiglio of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. The painting, to be some 20 metres wide, was to depict a celebrated victory of 1440 against Milanese forces.

The following year a pendant, the Battle of Cascina, was commissioned from Leonardo's young rival Michelangelo. Work on the Battle of Anghiari proceeded with interruptions until May 1506, when Leonardo was allowed to travel back to Milan, initially for three months, to work for the French occupiers of that city.

But he never returned to the project, and only a portion of the centre of the painting, depicting a cavalry skirmish and generally known as the Fight for the standard, was completed.

This was widely copied before its replacement by Giorgio Vasari's frescoes after 1563; recent attempts to locate Leonardo's mural beneath Vasari's work have been inconclusive.

  • Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection premieres at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle from February 13 – April 24 2016, then National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (May 4 – July 17 2016); Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery (July 30 – October 9 2016); Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea (October 15 2016 – January 6 2017).
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to discover works by Da Vinci in

The Palace of Holyroodhouse and The Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh
Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, opening later this year, will reveal the way in which gardens have been celebrated in art across four centuries. Bringing together paintings, botanical studies, drawings, books, manuscripts and decorative arts, the exhibition explores the changing character of the garden from the 16th to the early 20th century. It includes works by Da Vinci, Maria Sibylla Merian and Carl Fabergé.

British Library, London
The John Ritblat Gallery is home to a permanent exhibition of more than 200 of the library's most significant items including religious, literary, historical and musical works in the handwriting of Da Vinci, Lord Nelson, Lewis Carroll, Handel, Sir Paul McCartney and many others.

The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
As part of the visitor route at Windsor Castle, The Drawings Gallery shows changing exhibitions of material from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Special themed displays are shown alongside a selection of treasures, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.
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