Ginevra de’ Benci, Leonardo da Vinci
The link is to the page for the painting on the NGA site, which has a zoomable version as well as offering a link to a downloadable files, though you need to sign up for a free account to download the highest resolution version. There is also a zoomable version on the Google Art Project and a downloadable version of that file on Wikimedia Commons.
I was in Washington, DC last week and had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the National Gallery. There is never enough time, of course, to go from masterpiece to masterpiece in their mind-boggling collection, but even amid four Vermeers and 20-odd Rembrandts, there are other works that demand attention.
Painted in tempera on a wooden panel, this portrait of a Florentine woman is the only painting by Leonardo in the U.S.
I’ve had the opportunity to see his much more famous Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) at the louvre under particularly favorable conditions back in 2002, late in the evening with only a few people in the gallery instead of the usual crowds, and in the older setting, in which you could get closer than you can now.
The Mona Lisa is a striking and extraordinary painting, and worthy of great attention, but so are Leonardo’s other paintings. This portrait at the National Gallery, lacking the cachet of his more famous works, is easily viewed, up close, minus lines and crowds — though those who did stop to inspect it were often entranced for a time.
This is an earlier work by a younger Leonardo, but you can still see the gathering mastery, and the development of many of his later traits, such as the introduction of his trademark sfumato in the rendering of the edges of the woman’s face.
The eyes are deep, with highlights on the white as well as the iris. The hair is suggested with traceries of delicate lines, and blends into a halo of dark foliage that makes the face more forcefully prominent. The shrub is a juniper, a plant symbolizing chastity, and the name for which in Italian is “ginepro” which can be taken as a pun on her name, Ginevra. The original greens of the juniper have darkened with time.
The distant background, though much simpler than that in the Mona Lisa, presages the one in the more famous painting.
The portrait is notable as one of the earliest in Italian painting to show the subject in three quarter view instead of head on or profile, and one of the first to place a woman’s portrait outdoors.
The panel is double sided, and the museum has mounted it for viewing so you can walk around it and see the reverse, added by Leonardo at a later time, which is a wreath and scroll with a motto translated as: “Beauty Adorns Virtue”.
The painting originally showed the woman’s hands — as was more traditionally the custom and is the case with the Mona Lisa — but for some reason the panel was cut down at some point, perhaps because it was damaged. It has been suggested that an existing drawing by Leonardo may have been the study for the hands.