Widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived, da Vinci’s work is also met with incredible success on the secondary market.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in April 1452 in Vinci, a small community in the Tuscan countryside, the son of an unmarried notary and farmworker. Early on, da Vinci’s father recognized an enormous talent in his son and sent him to Florence to study under the craftsman Verrocchio. There, the young da Vinci learnt the basics of sculpture, painting and chemistry.
Most of Verrocchio’s works were produced as collaborations between staff members and apprentices, and da Vinci participated in several paintings that left Verrocchio's workshop. One example is The Baptism of Christ, painted between 1472 and 1475, which has today been confirmed to be by the hands of Verrocchio and his apprentice da Vinci.
Though da Vinci lived and worked many centuries ago, a lot is known about him. The reason is threefold: da Vinci’s talent, the persistent work of skilled researchers, and the significant amount of notes the artist himself left behind. He was also highly regarded during his time and therefore written about in contemporary sources.
Given the plethora of information available on da Vinci, it makes sense to divide up his practice. Let’s begin with the motives, technique and symbolism that are reflected in his oil painting.
During his time in Florence, da Vinci created three well-known Madonna images, two of which are formally assigned to the artist, but the third (in two versions) remains a controversial issue.
Madonna of the Carnation, belonging to the former category, was created in Verrocchio's workshop. The picture depicts Mary with Jesus as a child on her knee. They sit indoors in front of rounded windows which overlook a large mountain. In her hand, Mary holds a carnation, which is a common symbol of the nails of the crucifixion. The child stretches after the carnation in his mother's hand. The image becomes a warning for what's coming – a fate that has already been sealed.
The second Madonna image attributed to da Vinci is Benois Madonna, otherwise known as Madonna and Child with Flowers. However, this work has not been completed, as evidenced by Mary's toothless mouth and the blank window. The painting was acquired by Russian Tsar Nicholas II in 1914 for $1.5 million, becoming the then most expensive painting ever sold.
The third Madonna image is The Virgin of the Rocks, which differs from the previous two in terms of its setting (rocky backdrop), composition (triangular), number of figures portrayed (four as opposed to two), color, and lighting (darker overall but with greater highlighting). The Virgin of the Rocks exists in two editions, the former is believed to have been painted between 1483-86 and hangs on the wall at the Louvre in Paris, while the other was painted sometime between 1493 and 1508 and is available for public viewing at the National Gallery in London.
In both versions, da Vinci follows the Byzantine tradition that places Christ’s birth in a cave. There are some details, however, that separate the two versions. In the second painting, Madonna's unreasonably long arm is shortened to more exacting proportions, and da Vinci has given everyone a halo. Perhaps more notably, the angel no longer points to the left in the picture, neither does it meet our gaze.
At the time, it was very unusual for an angel in a religious painting to look directly at the spectator. This is possibly why the second version of the painting depicts the angel instead gazing inward.
Another question that arises is: to where is the angel pointing (in the first version)? Some believe it is an indication of the events that occurred between John the Baptist and the angel. In Christian apocryphal gospels, the angel Gabriel saved John from the Massacre of the Innocents and united him with the holy family on the road to Egypt.
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Although the paintings are attributed to da Vinci, he did not work alone. By 1490 he had his own studio with employees and apprentices, such as Francesco Melzi, Andrea Salaì and Marco d'Oggiono. However, years of research can ensure that the works are for the most part by da Vinci's own hand.
Da Vinci was not only devoted to religious images – he also received a number of secular orders. In 1490, da Vinci was in Milan, where he received assignments from Duke Ludovico Sforza. Among others, he completed a portrait of his mistress Cecilia Gallerani. Here, Gallerani is depicted against a dark background with a white ermine in her arms, which may have several meanings. The ermine could refer to the Duke's nickname ‘White ermine’ or his Neapolitan Ermine Medal. The ermine is also a symbol for illegitimate children – a suitable symbol in a portrait of a mistress.
Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a common motif in Christian art, which depicts Jesus, Mary, and Mary’s mother Anne. Da Vinci’s version of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was completed in 1509. In it, Mary sits on Anna's knee while she reaches for the Jesus child who sits at their feet holding a lamb, a common symbol in religious art. The animal represents Christ as both suffering and triumphant. It is a sacrificial animal but also represents kindness, virginity and purity.
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The painting is similar to most of da Vinci’s works performed in so-called 'sfumato'. The technique, one of the five most common in Renaissance painting, aims to soften edges and colors so that they slip into each other to create seamless transitions and a more realistic result.
Da Vinci depicted John the Baptist several times but only twice by himself as he did in St. John the Baptist, painted between 1513-16. St. John was usually portrayed as a gaunt ascetic but in this work da Vinci lets him look directly at the spectator, showing part of his muscular body. Once again, the artist applies the method of chiaroscuro where a strong contrast between the light and the dark is created, making it seem like St. John is stepping forward into the light.
Art historian Paul Barolsky captures this perfectly, stating: "Describing Saint John emerging from the darkness in almost shockingly immediate relation to the beholder, Leonardo magnifies the very ambiguity between spirit and flesh.” Dressed in his usual pelts, the young John points towards heaven which deflects from the erotic figure and highlights the religious meaning behind the work.
The painting is believed to be the great master’s last work as it was mentioned by Antonio de Beatis in his journal around 1517. Additionally, several specialists have established that da Vinci’s sfumato reached its highest technical quality in this image. Today, it hangs at the Louvre in Paris.
A name synonymous with da Vinci is, of course, Mona Lisa. The work was painted around 1503-06 and is undoubtedly da Vinci’s most famous painting. There has always been some mystery around Mona Lisa. Who is she, and what is the secret behind her smile?
For centuries there has been a lot of speculation around the identity of the sitter. The woman in the picture has great similarities with Saint Mary – the ideal symbol for femininity. Some say she is a female image of Leonardo's favorite student Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, or even da Vinci himself as a woman. The widely accepted explanation is much less exciting, however: Mona Lisa was a commissioned portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of the wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
Even for the artist himself, Mona Lisa, or La Joconde, as the painting is also known, seemed to be of great importance. He always had the painting in his presence and didn’t part with it until he left this world in 1519, at the age of 67.
Another famous da Vinci work is Salvator Mundi – what was perhaps the most talked-about painting in 2017. The painting was formerly believed to be a copy of a lost original, however is now said to have been in fact painted by the Renaissance master himself, though it still remains a controversial subject.
The painting depicts Christ with his right hand in a blessing gesture. In his left hand, he holds a glass sphere as a symbol of the universe. The painting was sold through Christie’s in the autumn of 2017 for an astounding $450.3 million to the Saudi prince Bader bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad bin Farhan al-Saud, who was acting for the kingdom's ultimate ruler, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS).
The painting was then entrusted by MBS to Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi to be shown at the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and to be loaned to the Parisian Louvre for the exhibition celebrating 500 years of da Vinci's death (held November 2019 to February 2020). However, the canvas was suddenly removed from both exhibitions, leading to a proliferation of theories about its whereabouts, authenticity and condition.
As the talented individual he was, da Vinci was an incredibly busy man who often had trouble delivering on time, or at all.
The Last Supper, painted in the 1490s, sits in the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie outside Milan. The work was delayed however, something which the monastery pointed out to the artist. But da Vinci said he wasn’t satisfied with his depiction of Judas’ treacherous face. He then clarified that if he did not succeed in fixing the face, he would replace Judas’ face with that of the person who complained again. Today, the work is the most reproduced religious image of all time.
Though fewer than 25 of da Vinci’s paintings have survived, the artist is still widely considered one of the great painters of all time. He is also famous for his unquenchable curiosity, and his notes on science and invention, which range in subjects from anatomy to cartography, painting to palaeontology to engineering. His collective works and diverse talents comprise to give him the recognized title of ‘Universal Genius’.