Lines and Colors art blog

The Face of Leonardo?

Leonardo da Vinci - presumed self-portrait
It has long been assumed that the red chalk drawing shown above is a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.

It certainly looks like what we expect or want the great Renaissance artist to look like, his penetrating deep-set eyes gazing out at us from distant past, weighted with the perhaps painful wisdom of great insight into the nature of the world and the ways of man; but its status as a self portrait has been called into question in recent years by prominent art historians; leading to the inevitable question of whether we really know what Leonardo looked like.

There are even those who claim, based on the assumption that the above image is a self-portrait, that similarities between key points in the facial structure show that the enigmatic face of the Mona Lisa could have been modeled on his own.

I don’t buy that one, but I have always accepted the above image as a self portrait, mainly because I recognize in it that “look” that I’ve seen in hundreds of self-portraits. It’s a look that I associate with a particular shift in mental state associated with drawing, something to do with where and how the eyes are focusing (see my post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain).

It’s a little hard to tell from this reproduction, and I was hard pressed to find a better one on the web. This is a very old, and very delicate, chalk drawing that is difficult to reproduce, and to see it more clearly you need to look for it in print, as on the back cover of Taschen’s excellent volume Leonardo da Vinci: Sketches and Drawings by Frank Zollner (part of a two volume set of his paintings and drawings – technically not in print in the US, but you can sometimes find it used or even discounted). There, and in other good reproductions, you can see the way the eyes are focused right at the viewer (or a mirror) and have that particular look of an artist deep in the mindset of concentrated drawing.

Still, scholars are saying the assumption that this is Leonardo is in question.

The only portrait of Leonardo for which we have reasonably reliable attribution is Verrocchio’s David, a statue for which Leonardo is believed to have posed as a boy of 15, but it’s difficult to draw immediate comparisons between that and the image of a man who is at least in his late 60’s.

This all leads to a fascinating four-minute presentation at this year’s TED (Technology Entertainment Design) Conference by Siegfried Woldhek, in which he does an astonishing analysis of Da Vinci’s drawings, systematically narrowing them down to possible candidates for self-portraits.

Siegfried Woldhek is a well known Dutch illustrator whose speciality is faces. He’s drawn over a thousand of them, mostly political and literary portraits and caricatures, for newspapers and magazines in Europe.

Drawing on his own experience (if you’ll excuse the expression) and the assumption that Leonardo, who drew everything around him with a passion bordering on obsession, must have created some self portraits (an assumption with which I agree), Woldhek searches through Leonardo’s drawings for evidence of a record of his own visage.

The resulting talk is a wonderfully condensed argument, establishing (without question in my mind) that we do indeed know what Leonardo da Vinci looked like, and from more than one image.

[Link to TED video via BoingBoing]


11 responses to “The Face of Leonardo?”

  1. J.A. Kraulis Avatar
    J.A. Kraulis

    Charley, I would like to express my admiration and appreciation for what you have done with this website. It is both fascinating and useful; one of the best of any kind that I have come across.

    Regarding this post, Woldhek’s fine presentation is certainly convincing, but why would he would rule out all of da Vinci’s profiles as potential self-portraits? Few people of that time would ever have seen their own profile, and for precisely that reason one would expect that the compulsively investigative Leonardo would have sought to view his. Having readily found the startling revelation of it in a simple arrangement of mirrors, it could be expected that this would be one discovery he would record in a sketch.

    Thanks again,


  2. Excelent website, very interesting information, from now on, you have a periodical reader in Mexico


  3. Woldek’s analysis is interesting but I don’t find it entirely convincing either. I think an overlooked consideration is that except for a handful of caricaturists (Woldek among them) most portrait painters and artisstic generalists tend to construct faces in in a similar vein throughout their careers.

    Think of how all of El Greco’s portraits seem to drift toward elongated faces. Does this mean that El Greco looked this way himself or does it merely mean that this was El Greco’s concept of how the anatomy of a male face was constructed?

    Nonetheless one subtle observation does recommend Woldek’s analysis: Each of the four final views Woldek presents carry a slightly lowered left eyebrow and a slightly arched right eyebrow or muscle over the eyebrow. Quite possibly an aspect of the facial expression da Vinci presented to the world that knew him.

  4. J.A., thanks, I appreciate the kind words about lines and colors.

    I agree, That’s one thing I wouldn’t have done, is thrown out the possibility of Leonardo drawing his own profile using multiple mirrors.

    If anyone at the time might have been playing with multiple reflective surfaces, in addition to any other optical effects, it would have been him.

  5. Visual Mercenary,

    Thanks. Glad to hear it.

  6. Dan,

    Thanks, as always, for your comments.

    I know what you mean about artists having a particular type of face they like to portray, Da Vinci seems to do that with women’s faces, but I don’t see it as much with his portrayal of men, who are often grotesque and distinctly individual.

    The thing that convinced me of the relationship of the three images wasn’t so much the comparison of the faces to each other, but the comparison with the image above, which I still accept as a self-portrait, mainly because it strongly “feels” like one to me, and always has.

  7. hexag1 Avatar

    You say that Verrocchio’d David is the only reasonably attributed portrait of Leonardo. I have to differ with you there. The attribution of that sculpture as a portrait of Leonardo lays on far more hearsay than the right profile of Leonardo, drawn by his best pupil Francesco Melzi, found here
    (sorry about the poor quality image)
    and seen firsthand by Vasari in Melzi’s home.

  8. hexag1 Avatar

    i mean left profile

  9. hexag1,

    Thanks for the comments. You may well be right (though I have heard Vasari’s accuracy called into question as well, dispite his first-hand reports).

    Not having done any scholarly research on this myself, I’ll leave the topic open in terms of the attribution of the sculpture, but I note with interest that the profile by Melzi fits nicely with the red chalk drawing.


    Here is another image of Melzi’s drawing:

  10. His best pupil, Francesco Melzi or Rob ten Berge (nowadays) made this:

    Perhaps you’re still too rational to believe in reincarnation ( the other inconvenient truth).

  11. Bojana Dimitrovski Avatar
    Bojana Dimitrovski

    Hello Charlie! 🙂

    I love your blog, and I’m always looking forward to new posts! Thanks so much for all that you’re sharing here…