One of the great Renaissance painters, Leonardo da Vinci continually tested artistic traditions and techniques. He created innovative compositions, investigated anatomy to accurately represent the human body, considered the human psyche to illustrate character, and experimented with methods of representing space and three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. The result of his inexhaustible curiosity is many unfinished projects but also some of the most lifelike, complex, and tender representations of human nature. His experiments influenced the art of his successors and often became the standard of representation in subsequent centuries. At his death in 1519, Leonardo left many notebooks filled with jottings and sketches but very few finished works. Some of his pieces were completed by assistants, but others were lost, destroyed, or overpainted. Below are 10 examples of some of his most well-known surviving works.
Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19)
The world’s most famous artwork, the Mona Lisa draws thousands of visitors to the Louvre Museum each day, many of whom are compelled by the sitter’s mysterious gaze and enigmatic smile. The seemingly ordinary portrait of a young woman dressed modestly in a thin veil, somber colors, and no jewelry might also confound its viewers, who may wonder what all the fuss is about. The painting’s simplicity belies Leonardo’s talent for realism. The subject’s softly modeled face shows his skillful handling of sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow, rather than line, to model form. The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s tireless patience in recreating his studied observations. Moreover, the sitter’s perplexing expression only adds to her realism. Her smile might be engaging or it might be mocking—viewers can’t quite figure it out because, like a human, she is a complex figure, embodying contrary characteristics simultaneously.
Last Supper (c. 1495–98)
One of the most famous paintings in the world, the Last Supper was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron during his first stay in that city, for the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Depicting a sequential narrative, Leonardo illustrates several closely connected moments in the Gospels, including Matthew 26:21–28, in which Jesus declares that one of the Apostles will betray him and then institutes the Eucharist. Leonardo, who was intrigued by the manner in which a man’s character can reveal itself in posture, expression, and gesture, depicted each disciple’s unique reaction to the declaration. The Apostles’ postures rise, fall, extend, and intertwine as they appear to whisper, yell, grieve, and debate around Jesus, who sits serenely in the center. Because of Leonardo’s experimental painting technique, in which he used tempera or oil paint on two layers of preparatory ground, the work began to disintegrate soon after he finished it. Viewers, however, can still recognize it as a complex study of varied human emotion, revealed in a deceptively simple composition.
Vitruvian Man (c. 1490)
Leonardo’s pen-and-ink drawing Vitruvian Man comes from one of the many notebooks that he kept on hand during his mature years. It is accompanied by notes, written in mirror script, on the ideal human proportions that the Roman architect Vitruvius laid out in a book on architecture from the 1st century BCE. The drawing illustrates Vitruvius’s theory that the ideal human could fit within a circle and a square, two irreconcilable shapes. Leonardo resolved the concept by drawing a male figure in two superimposed positions—one with his arms outstretched to fit in a square and another with his legs and arms spread in a circle. The work shows not only Leonardo’s effort to understand significant texts but also his desire to expand on them. He was not the first to illustrate Vitruvius’s concepts, but his drawing later became the most iconic, partly because its combination of mathematics, philosophy, and art seemed a fitting symbol of the Renaissance. The drawing is now housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, where it is not typically on display but kept in a climate-controlled archive.
Self Portrait (c. 1490/1515–16)
Long regarded as a self-portrait, the red chalk drawing of an old man with long wavy hair and a beard has been reproduced to such an extent that it defines how most people think of Leonardo’s appearance. Yet some scholars argue that the figure, with its craggy features, furrowed brow, and downcast eyes, appears much older than the age Leonardo ever reached; Leonardo died at age 67. They propose that the drawing may be one of his grotesque drawings, sketches he habitually made in his notebooks of people with eccentric features. Whomever the portrait represents, it is a departure from Leonardo’s often captivating subjects, yet he managed to imbue the figure with the nobility and wisdom of a mature age.
The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483–86)
Based on stylistic evidence, many scholars consider the painting The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre the first of two paintings that Leonardo made of an apocryphal legend in which the Holy Family meets Saint John the Baptist as they flee to Egypt from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Leonardo was involved in years of litigation with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which commissioned the work, and the dispute eventually led Leonardo to paint another version of the subject about 1508, which is now housed in the National Gallery of London.
The first painting shows the ways in which Leonardo ushered in the High Renaissance. Early paintings from this period often depicted figures in linear arrangements, separate from one another, and stiff in form. In The Virgin of the Rocks, however, the figures of the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child, the infant John, and an archangel are arranged in a pyramidal composition, and they not only convincingly occupy a space but interact with one another through gestures and glances. A youthful Mary sits on the ground in a mysterious rocky landscape, not on a throne as so many early Renaissance paintings depicted her. Her body has movement—it seems to sway as she tilts her head protectively toward the infant John, who kneels in prayer at the left, and she looks as if she nudges him over to the Christ Child at the right. Jesus, in turn, blesses John as an archangel, seen in a complex pose from the back, points toward John and glances inscrutably outward at the viewer. Leonardo also notably excluded traditional holy signifiers—halos for Mary and Christ and a staff for John—so that the Holy Family appears less divine and more human.
Head of a Woman (1500–10)
Head of a Woman, a small brush drawing with pigment, depicts a young woman with her head tilted and her eyes downcast. Her posture recalls the Virgin Mary in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, suggesting that the drawing may have served as a model. The drawing’s nickname, La scapigliata, translates to “disheveled” and refers to the young woman’s wayward strands of hair. The loosely sketched tendrils and shoulders contrast with the highly finished face, where Leonardo gently modeled the woman’s delicate features, from her heavy eyelids to her tender lips. It reveals Leonardo’s fluid means of working, utilizing both expressive drawing to create form and controlled layering to provide detail.
Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489–91)
Many art historians identify the youthful woman in Lady with an Ermine as Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. The ermine was often used as an emblem for the duke. The woman turns her head to the right, her bright eyes seemingly directed toward something outside the frame. Although the painting has been heavily overpainted, notably the dark background, it nonetheless reveals Leonardo’s knowledge of anatomy and his ability to represent character in posture and expression. He captures the girl’s youth and genial nature in her guileless features, attentive gaze, and tender embrace of the ermine, which sits with its head cocked regally and alert. Her slender hand reveals the complicated bone structure beneath the skin, just as the head of the ermine suggests the skull underneath the finely rendered fur.
Salvator Mundi (c. 1500)
The head-on portrait of Salvator Mundi (c. 1500; “Savior of the World”) made headlines in 2017 when it sold for a record-breaking $450.3 million at auction. The high price was all the more surprising when considering that Salvator Mundi was in poor condition, it had a questionable history, and its attribution was a subject of debate among scholars and critics. Many pundits remarked on the poor skill used to represent Jesus’ face; the stiff posture, which was so unlike the Renaissance master’s characteristic twisting poses; and the unconvincing representation of the glass globe, which, if solid, would have reflected a distorted view of its holder, an optical trick that Leonardo would have known about. Christie’s, the auction house that managed the sale, dismissed the criticisms, noting that any lack of craft was the result of heavy restoration in previous centuries and pointed to the soft modeling of Jesus’ right hand and the finesse of his tight curls, both characteristics that resembled Leonardo’s technique. The auction house also asserted that conservators had confirmed that the painting was made of the same materials that Leonardo would have used, notably ultramarine, an expensive high-quality blue pigment often reserved exclusively for virtuosos. The attribution debate continued well after the sale, but the interest in the work and the large sum paid at auction attested to Leonardo’s enduring celebrity and to his powerful position in the art history canon five centuries after his death.
Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474/78)
Housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is the only painting by Leonardo publicly displayed in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of Leonardo’s earliest works, finished when he was in his early 20s, and shows some of the unconventional methods he would use throughout his career. Inspired by his Northern contemporaries, Leonardo broke with tradition by depicting the solemn young woman in a three-quarter pose rather than the customary profile, and thus he may have been the first Italian artist to paint such a composition. He continued to use the three-quarter view in all of his portraits, including the Mona Lisa, and it quickly became the standard for portraiture, so ubiquitous that viewers take it for granted today. Leonardo may also have used his fingers when the paint was still tacky to model Ginevra’s face, as suggested by the fingerprints found in the paint surface.
On the reverse side of the painting, a wreath of laurel and palm encircles a sprig of juniper (ginepro in Italian—a pun on the sitter’s name), and a scroll bearing the Latin phrase “beauty adorns virtue” entwines each of the flora. The truncated appearance of the reverse side suggests that the painting may have been cut at the bottom, possibly because of damage from water or fire. Some scholars speculate that the portrait on the obverse would have included Ginevra’s hands and propose that a silverpoint study of arms and hands housed at Windsor Castle may have served as a preliminary drawing.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1503–19)
Some scholars believe that The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was Leonardo’s last painting, and in this work he used many of the conventions that he had established throughout his career to depict three generations of the Holy Family—Saint Anne, her daughter, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child. Anne, at the apex of the pyramidal composition, watches Mary, who sits on her lap, as the Virgin tenderly restrains the Christ Child from mounting a lamb. Contrasting with the knowing infant Leonardo depicted in The Virgin of the Rocks, the Christ figure in the The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne appears innocent, demonstrating playful juvenile behavior and showing a trusting expression as he returns his mother’s gaze. The interactions between the figures feels intimate and reveals Leonardo’s ability to represent convincing human relationships.
The painting also shows Leonardo’s lifelong interest in believably representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. As in many of Leonardo’s paintings, the figures sit amid a fantastical landscape. Using aerial perspective, a technique that he wrote about in his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo created the illusion of distance by painting the rocky formations in the background so that they appear blue-gray and less detailed than the landscape of the foreground. He used this technique in many of the landscapes of his earlier works, including the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks.
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