The Louvre’s retrospective of the career of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) addresses what might seem an odd question but isn’t. Why was he the most famous and esteemed artist of his age and every age since his death 500 years ago?
The Last Supper rocked the art world in 1498 when Leonardo painted it on the wall of a convent dining hall in Milan. His conception was both revolutionary and instantly acclaimed, shocking since the convent was an obscure site, and he worked long before the age of mass dissemination of images. He fashioned himself as a scientist, but his bungled mix of oil paint and unfriendly layers of plaster created a fugitive surface that quickly flaked. Within a few years, it was a ruin but was still more famous than the Parthenon. La Giaconda, or the Mona Lisa, painted between 1503 and 1506, is indeed lovely and cryptic but why does a half-length portrait of a minor dignitary draw people like bees to honey, not just now but over centuries?
Only 15 paintings are attributed to Leonardo. He lived off and on in Florence but for long periods was cosseted by potentates such as the Duke of Milan and the French King Francis I who considered him their pet genius. He took forever to finish paintings, if he finished them at all. He was born out of wedlock, his father a small-town lawyer and his mother a peasant. He had little formal education. When he tried to steal papal work from the young Raphael and Michelangelo, he failed. By 1510 in Rome, however esteemed Leonardo was, they were more fashionable, and reliable. Why, then, is Leonardo the genius for all seasons, the original Renaissance man?
The exhibition explains Leonardo’s fame with impressive clarity and precision. He mastered movement, which conveys the reality of life on figures represented on a flat surface. He developed an atmosphere for his figures, settings where they convincingly breathe. An understanding of light, especially shade, molds form like putty. Leonardo believed that understanding the material world was essential in representing it. To him, mathematics, geology, anatomy, engineering, aeronautics, and botany weren’t always detours or diversions, though they sometimes were, hence, only 15 paintings in a 50-year career. He felt he couldn’t represent life, its physical and intellectual aspects, without knowing how life ticks.
It’s mostly a drawings show, along with eight of his paintings and the massive 1507–08 copy of The Last Supper done on canvas by Marco d’Oggiono. His story begins in Florence in the shop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488) where the savant Leonardo worked as a teenage apprentice. About a dozen large drapery studies by either Verrocchio or Leonardo are somber experiments in achieving form and weight through subtle undulations of lights and darks. These studies feel abstract and modern. Saint-Morys Study, by Leonardo, from the late 1470s, is the most impressive. The subject is a close-up, intense passage of drapery. The colors are an austere brown and gray. Light not only makes the folds and creases but gives what’s underneath presence and credibility.
Verrocchio was Leonardo’s boss and mentor, but Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio were Florence’s biggest art beasts. They were a few years older than Leonardo, and their work was linear, graceful, and sweet. Every angel looked like an ingénue, and vice versa. Their palettes were bright and saturated. Their figures were given to frolics. Sometimes their work feels like billboards or friezes. Sometimes it seems unserious, lacking for depth, like a Riesling or Beaujolais with celery and cream-cheese canapes. Leonardo gives us Amarone and steak, but he would have called it “sfumato.”
“Sfumato” is the blurring of edges to create softer and more gradual transitions from light to dark. It looks like bits of dark gauze applied to create shadows. Think fog at night. By 1500, works such as La Scapigliata or, even smokier, the black chalk Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist are Leonardo’s calling card. His figures feel and look as if they’re slowly pushed from what feels like a primordial darkness into a world of light. They have weight and gravity but also mystery.
The Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks, from around 1485, is his first large, multi-figure painting. It’s as much a landscape as a figure painting, with the dynamic, even lusty, modeling of Mary, Jesus, and saints reinforced by a vast, deep, craggy landscape. It’s a scene from the Apocryphal gospel of St. John the Baptist occurring during the Flight into Egypt. The landscape is daunting, even unforgiving, on the one hand but a good place to hide on the other. It’s one of the stars in the exhibition, which also includes paintings by Leonardo’s students. An installation of work by a heavy hitter like Leonardo demands people-moving skills. I think the curators did a great job giving objects space for contemplation but also signaling to people to move along smartly. The museum was closed the day I went, but I imagine it’s packed when open. There’s ample distance between objects.
After seeing the exhibition, I visited the Mona Lisa. Its riveting beauty is in its plainness. It’s an economical picture. Her hands are elegant but simple. She wears a black dress and a black veil. She’s no Claudia Cardinale. She’s not even pretty. She’s handsome and has a look of experience far beyond her years. She’s very present and looks like flesh and blood, and that’s part of the enigma. She’s not approachable. She’s thinking and absorbing but a wall as soft and as impenetrable is hard to imagine.
Leonardo’s drawings often don’t make narrative sense, and that’s why they feel so modern. He doesn’t draw a scene over and over in search of refinement. In a single large drawing from the Royal Collection, he sketches a scene of Mary and the infant Jesus together and an arbitrary group of human and animal profiles. The juxtapositions on the sheet are as inexplicable as a dream. The look is weird, like Chagall’s floating people in his Russian village scenes or Dali’s or Tanguy’s weird mismatches. It’s not automatic writing like Pollock or Gorky. Leonardo’s mind moves quickly, and he’s always doodling.
The cleverest part of the show is the use of wall-mounted infrared reflectograms of Leonardo’s paintings. Their palette is grisaille or looks like brown or black chalk with gouache. They play well with the drawings. For Leonardo, drawing wasn’t so much about developing an overall composition. His drawings were idea-making. They mostly isolate parts of the body. His late 1480s Study of Hands is a beautiful example. It’s on the early side so the subjects have crisper contours, but he’s after a look, not a whole scene. The X-rays of paintings show what happens as he tackles a canvas with paint. Painstaking, step-by-step planning goes out the door. We can see the hundreds of small changes he’s making on the spot, sometimes shifting entire figures, sometimes tweaking a line. The X-rays don’t necessarily feel forensic. They’re really very beautiful.
A big gallery treats Leonardo’s copious scientific work. His launch toward science came in his days with Verrocchio. There, he took a deep dive into chemistry, plastering, casting, mechanics, and metalwork, in addition to aesthetics. Later, he seemed less practical — he wasn’t a tinkerer like, say, Thomas Edison — than philosophical and speculative. He was a “what if” guy. “Can do” he wasn’t. He was no Benjamin Franklin, out there with kite and key in a lightning storm, or Marie Curie in a lab getting zapped.
His sketchbooks are tiny, but each has as many as a hundred pages packed with drawings and text. Some are straightforward, like studies of bent and straight leg bones. The botany sketches are lovely still lifes of flowers. Optics was a favorite subject. Leonardo wanted to know how the eye worked, so he could paint for the greatest visual impact. It’s clear why Leonardo did only 15 paintings. It was a failure of productivity and focus that he acknowledged toward the end of his life. He was a polymath and poster child for ADD. For his main sugar daddies, like the Sforzas in Milan, the Medicis in Florence, and Francis I, he was a one-man think tank and given free rein. He was good to have around, and he set a prestigious, serious tone in any court.
Marco d’Oggioni’s copy of The Last Supper is in the science gallery. It’s a dazzling aesthetic thing. Nothing like The Last Supper had been done before: a life-size, cinematic, technicolor scene of dramatic movement. It’s a snapshot, too. It’s the moment when Jesus lets the gang in on a secret: Someone among them will betray him in a matter of hours. The sequence of moving hands, torsos, heads, feet, and faces isn’t balletic. Leonardo choreographed it, to be sure, but the movement looks spontaneous, like 13 freestanding, independent units exploded in a single burst of energy, visually captured.
Seeing it in the science gallery made me think of Eadweard Muybridge, the British photographer who did sequential photographs of running men and galloping horses. Leonardo calculated long and hard to make it look immediate and heartfelt, the skulking Judas notwithstanding. The Last Supper must have been dazzling when it was done, and Leonardo, knowing chemistry as well as he did, must have known he was using dodgy materials. He was so immersed in architecture that surely he also understood the wall he used was made of second-rate materials and the room poorly drained. I thought of J. M. W. Turner, who, too, was after immediate sparkle and used unorthodox and incompatible materials to get it. He also knew that after a few years his paintings would peel pigment.
Vetruvian Man, the 1490 drawing about ideal human proportions, is in the show. It’s usually seen as a tribute to reason, logic, and the perfectibility of humanity, but the show tells us that’s not where Leonardo was heading. That takes us to the late St. John the Baptist, from the 1510s. He’s ideally beautiful, even androgynous, and more otherworldly than corporeal. He emerges from darkness but not all the way into the light. A few weeks ago, I wrote about James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You” poster of Uncle Sam. It’s in your face, which this isn’t. St. John is pointing toward the heavens.
The last object in the show is A Deluge, a black chalk drawing from about 1518. What Leonardo learned from science wasn’t predictability. There were plenty of phenomena he couldn’t rationally explain. More often than not, he found impermanence. He was a realist, yes, seeking after convincing form, but he was a realist depicting awe. Tempests are awesome, wild things, and so is what lies in the darkness.
The $450 million painting claimed to be by Leonardo wasn’t there. It sold at Christie’s in 2017, breaking auction records. I saw it during the auction preview. It’s still a controversial attribution, with many art historians, connoisseurs, and conservators thinking it’s a work by someone in Leonardo’s studio. It wasn’t missed. Many of the things on view would have blown it out of the air, up the Seine, and into the deep blue sea.