Leonardo da Vinci is one of those artists, like Rembrandt, Monet or Van Gogh, who is obscured from us by the brilliance of his fame.
It is almost impossible to look at Leonardo without the attendant baggage of his reputation as the ultimate embodiment of the Renaissance, one of the most brilliant minds in history, and the creator of iconic images; including what is arguably the most famous painting in the World, the Mona Lisa (which I have attempted to show you with fresh eyes in my post La Gioconda (The Mona Lisa), flipped for your viewing pleasure).
Leonardo, despite his reputation as an inventor, proto-scientist, anatomist, and philosopher, was primarily an artist. To look at him as an artist, as freshly as we can, perhaps we should step back to that most basic of an artist’s skills, drawing.
Even here, Leonardo’s reputation confounds us; even his drawings are famous, from the iconic Virtruvian Man, to his drawings for flying machines, weapons of war or fantastically advanced notions like submarines and helicopters. His notebooks are the most renowned collections of sketches, drawings and notes in the world. Some of his drawings from them are among the most famous in the world and have been reproduced widely, even animated.
To most artists, drawings are an exploration of the visual world and their response to it, and preparatory studies for finished works. To Leonardo they were that and more; explorations of scientific inquiry, logistics, inventiveness, anatomical study, investigations of motion and natural phenomena, and an essential tool in his relentless quest to know and understand the world around him.
So we step back again, and try to look at his drawings simply as those of an artist, to see if we can get to know him on that level; drawing what he saw with the materials at hand, largely pen and ink and silverpoint, and less frequently, chalks.
Here, in the details of his firm line work, delicate shading and expressive textures, perhaps we can meet Leonardo the artist; observing, studying and interpreting the world before his eyes with uncanny intensity and consummate skill.
Here we see his mastery of tone, his robust draftsmanship, but ultimately his struggle as an artist, like that of most serious artists, to make his skill the measure of the fantastic wonders of the world he wanted to portray.
There is a site devoted the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci with about fifty of his drawings. A better selection, though not as easy to navigate, can be found on the Web Gallery of Art (if an image doesn’t come up in the pop-up when you click for the detail image, try reloading the pop-up window).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a selection of Leonardo’s drawings as part of a previous exhibit. I’ve listed some other online resources below.
Also, see my previous post The Face of Leonardo?, in which I talk about how Siegfried Woldhek analyzed Leonardo’s catalog of drawings to find those that most likely qualify as self-portraits.
There are a number of books devoted to Leonardo’s drawings. The inexpensive Dover edition, Leonardo Drawings, is viewable online through Google Book Search.
The second volume of the two volume set, Leonardo da Vinci, Vol I: The Complete Paintings; Vol II: Sketches and Drawings by Frank Zollner is beautiful, contains many of his well known and lesser known drawings, nicely reproduced and remarkably inexpensive. Though, not listed in print on Amazon, you can find it online, sometimes even discounted new, or even cheaper used.
Leonardo’s Notebooks, edited and arranged by Anna Suh, is more an appreciation than a catalog, and features many of his translated writings along with the sheets to which they relate.
There are numerous other books on Leonardo’s drawings and his notebooks. Many of them quite inexpensive; so don’t be deterred by the fact that Bill Gates at one point paid over 30 million dollars for one his original notebooks, the Leicester Codex, making it the most expensive book ever purchased.
3 Replies to “Leonardo’s Drawings”
Great post and I’m glad you focused on his drawings.
Your fifth paragraph is a terrificly concise summary of what drawing was for Leonardo, Charley. Da Vinci’s justifiable fame could rest quite securely on the drawings alone.
As a scientist, engineer and painter he is interesting and his combined work in all those areas has made him the iconic genius of the Renaissance.
But, in fact, his life was full of stories of “almost”: He almost discovered the circulatory system. He almost converted his notes into a treatise on painting. He almost invented the bicycle, the helicopter, the tank, etc. He also almost finished some masterpieces.
He completed so few paintings that even during his own lifetime already he was developing a reputation as a procrastinator who could not be relied upon to see things through in a timely manner. (See Vasari)
By the end of his life his painting style had deteriorated into a creepy kind of sentimentality that seems almost perverse today (see his painting of St. John in the Louvre c. 1515/16).
I find the Mona Lisa (seen in person or in the highest quality reproduction) a pale ghost of what it must once have been. The Ginevra in Washington DC far is more interesting in terms of how the paint is used to describe the landscape of a human face.
But his drawings are the road maps of exploration in the intellectual travels of an insatiably curious mind. The mind of an artist, first and foremost.
Thanks, as always, for your informative comments, Dan.
I have to disagree with you, though, about seeing the Mona Lisa in person, and I have been duly impressed by his Ginerva de’ Benci at the National Gallery.
I had the good fortune to encounter the La Giaconda on a late evening when most of the Louvre was closed, sharing the entire gallery (the old one, where you could get closer) with only 6 other people.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed because the image is such a cliché, and I’d seen it reproduced a thousand times, but I was surprised and delighted to find the opposite occurred.
We have all seen Leonardo’s paintings, over and over again and just about everywhere. I appreciate the fact that you have focused your attention to his drawings. In general, drawings are the skeletal structure for a painting if the work progresses that far.Knowing how to work with the space provided on paper and laying out an idea is essential to creating decent work.
At least drawing allows us to explore the possibilities of what something could become and it is an important learning tool for the basics of what a picture is composed of.
Da Vinci’s drawings are stylized just like his paintings for the time in which he lived but his collection within his notebooks have provided us with key information on how he studied art, invented things, and created great drawings.
I would be more excited seeing his drawings behind a glass case, drawn with raw material on weathered paper.
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