Leonardo Da Vinci, Master Draftsman

by | 05. Sep 2012

Exhibitions and Events
Truly marvelous and celestial was Leonardo.so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.
/Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, from his mid-16th-century compendium of artists’ lives

Billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity,  the superb exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman,” surveys Leonardo’s (1453-1519) staggering contribution as artist, scientist, engineer, theorist, and teacher.

This landmark international loan exhibition, is the first comprehensive exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings ever presented in America, bringing together nearly 120 works by one of the most renowned masters of all time – the very embodiment of the Renaissance ideal of the universal genius.


The Facial Proportions of a Man in Profile, Study of Soldiers and Horses (recto) Pen and brown ink, over traces of stylus, black chalk or charcoal; selectively pin-pricked holes for the construction of the grid of the figure in profile, red chalk, (28 x 22.4 cm)Collection: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

The selection of drawings includes rarely exhibited works and illustrates the rich variety of drawing types for his artistic projects – from quickly sketched primi pensieri (first thoughts) to highly finished preparatory and presentation drawings – as well as landscape, botanical, anatomical, and military engineering drawings of monumental expression; reflecting virtually every aspect of the artist’s artistic and intellectual achievement.

Born in the small Tuscan hilltown of Vinci, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary and a local peasant girl.  His early school education did not prepare him for his later career as author of treatises, and he seems to have attained only a cursory knowledge of Latin, the language of most scientific texts and the “lingua franca” among the Humanists who comprised the intellectual elite of his day.

As Leonardo himself explained in the preface to his treatise On Painting, “Though I may not know.how to cite from authors, I will cite from something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters.”

Drawings by the young Leonardo include several drapery studies, remarkable for their subtle explorations of light, shadow, and texture, and a group of silverpoint studies of cats, dogs, dogs’ paws, and a bear.


Study of draperies Gray tempera highlighted with white and applied with brush on gray prepared linen(265 x 253 mm)Collection: Paris, MusŽe du Louvre

Also on view are a number of Leonardo’s whimsical allegories, caricatures, and penetrating studies of grotesque physiognomies.


Grotesque bust of a man in profile to the rightCharcoal, some right-handed, with contours pricked for transfer(382 x 275 mm)Collection: Oxford, Christ Church

Installed chronologically, the exhibition enables visitors to trace Leonardo’s artistic and intellectual development through each of the major phases of his career: his apprenticeship and early artistic maturity in Florence during the 1470s; the highly productive years at the Sforza court in Milan, from ca. 1481/3 to 1499, where he first emerged as a scientist and inventor; his return to Florence, ca. 1500 to 1506, where he was acclaimed and employed both as an artistic and engineering genius; the unsettled decade from ca. 1506 to 1516, when he moved between Florence, Milan, and Rome, seeking respite from political turmoil; and his final years in France, from 1516 until his death in 1519, where he lived as the honored guest of King Franois I.

The full scope of his achievement – with its legendary emphasis on observation as the source of all knowledge – is best preserved in almost 4,000 sheets of drawings and notes that survive.

From the Leonardo’s early maturity comes one of the exhibition’s most important objects- the panel painting of St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness (Vatican, Vatican City).


Saint Jerome Praying in the WildernessUnfinished painting on wood panel(1032 x 749 mm)Collection: Vatican City, Musei Vaticani

Left unfinished it provides visitors with an extraordinary glimpse into Leonardo’s creative process, as he moved from underdrawing to the realization of forms in paint.  The painting also preserves the imprint of the artist’s fingers in the upper left corner.

Works from the years Leonardo spent at the Sforza court in Milan (from ca. 1481/83 to 1499) include his design for a proposed colossal equestrian statue of the Duke Francesco Sforza.


(Study for the Sforza Monument?)A Horseman Trampling on a Fallen Foe recto and verso Metalpoint on blue prepared paper.Contours forcefully reworked with incisions left on paper, (verso) Unprepared, pen and dark brown ink(151 x 188 mm)Collection: Windsor Castle, Royal Library

This wonderfully spirited study of a rearing horse is exhibited together, for the first time, with Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s working modello for the same project (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, New York), probably prepared in competition.

A luminous metalpoint drawing of the head of an elderly bearded man has been identified as a study for figure of St. Peter in Leonardo’s celebrated Last Supper, painted for Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie.


Early studies for the Last Supper and a HygrometerPen and golden brown ink, (verso) Pen and brown ink(266 x 214 mm)


Early studies for the Last Supper and a HygrometerPen and golden brown ink, (verso) Pen and brown ink(266 x 214 mm)

A luminous metalpoint drawing of the head of an elderly bearded man has been identified as a study for figure of St. Peter in Leonardo’s celebrated Last Supper, painted for Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Leonardo’s dramatic red chalk study of the head of a shouting soldier, probably drawn from the life, is among the group of ten sheets related to his now-lost Battle of Anghiari, a monumental wall-painting commissioned in 1503 for the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.


Study for the Head of a Soldier in the Battle of Anghiari (recto)Red chalk on ochre-pink prepared paper(22.7 x 18.6 cm)Collection: SzŽpmŸvŽszeti Mœseum, Budapest

Other drawings from Leonardo’s second Florentine period include recently discovered sketches intended for an unexecuted sculpture of Hercules that may have been meant to compete with Michelangelo’s David; studies for the lost Leda and the Swan; and a presentation drawing of Neptune with Seahorses.


The Sea God Neptune Commanding His Quadriga of Sea HorsesCharcoal or soft black chalk(25.2 x 38.9 cm)Collection: Royal Library, Windsor Castle

The exhibition also bring together a group of drawings for the beloved painting Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, from the MusŽe du Louvre, offering an opportunity to redefine the chronology and evolution of this complex late project.

The magical study for the head of the Virgin provides insight into the development of Leonardo’s innovative graphic techniques –  most particularly his use of sfumato; an art-historical term created to describe his seamless blending of tone in the manner of smoke.


Head of the VirginBlack and colored chalks with traces of framing line in pen and brown ink at upper right(203 x 156 mm)Collection: New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many of Leonardo’s drawings for his non artistic projects have often been viewed more as illustrations of intellectual content than as aesthetic objects in and of themselves. The exhibition demonstrates that Leonardo brought the same clarity and elegance seen in his studies for paintings and sculpture to his scientific and technological drawings.


Star of BethlehemRed chalk, reworked with pen and dark brown ink(196 x 158 mm)Collection: Windsor Castle, Royal Library

In his Star-of-Bethlehem, one of Leonardo’s most famous botanical illustrations, the ribbon-like leaves of the plant are rendered in flowing, rhythmic lines, beautifully evocative of vitality and growth.


Study of the skullPen and dark brown ink over traces of leadpointPen and brown ink over black chalk or leadpoint  (189 x 139 mm)Collection: Windsor Castle, Royal Library

His pioneering anatomical researches are documented in a double-sided sheet of studies of the human skull, based on direct observation and rendered in exquisitely fine parallel hatchings, and a drawing, inscribed “Tree of Veins”, illustrating the main organs relating to the blood vessels.


A Cannon FactoryPen and dark brown ink over traces of black chalk or leadpoint(?)(24.7 x 18.3 cm)Collection: Royal Library, Windsor Castle

Although Leonardo abhorred war, he prided himself on his designs for weaponry (“I can make cannon, mortars, and light ordnance of very beautiful and useful shapes, quite different from those in common use,” he once declared). The exhibition features a number of his ingenious drawings of various types of assault machines, crossbows, shields, and incendiary devices.

The selection of folios from The Codex Leicester (Seattle, Washington, Private Collection), one of his latest extant notebooks, includes drawings, diagrams, sketches, and written observations (in the left-handed artist’s distinctive mirror script) on subjects ranging from the reflective properties of celestial bodies, to the nature of gravity, to hydrodynamics.


Sketches for the Flow of Water, Hercules seen from the front, and Man Unsheathing a Sword (recto); Hercules seen from the rear (verso)Pen and brown ink, 5 3/8 x 5 _ inches (137 x 140 mm)Collection: New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Leonardo’s fascination with the properties and power of water is also revealed in the series of so-called Deluge drawings. Executed towards the end of his life, ca. 1515-17, these are terrifying apocalyptic visions in which giant waves furiously rebound over the diminutive forms of man and nature.  Although classified as works of the poetic imagination, they are nevertheless realized with a keen understanding of the scientific principles governing the behavior of water.

The exhibition also includes a selection of approximately 25 drawings by his teacher Andrea del Verrocchio and his circle, as well as by Leonardo’s Milanese pupils – Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (his earliest pupil), Francesco Melzi (his companion and artistic heir), Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, and others;  providing a context for the great artist’s legacy.

Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman is organized by Carmen C. Bambach, Curator, and George R. Goldner, Chairman, both of the Metropolitan’s Department of Drawings and Prints.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.


CITY New York, New York