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Horse and Rider
Horse and Rider

About the item

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)\nHorse and Rider\nsilverpoint on prepared paper\n120 x 78 mm.


An early study in reverse for the horse between two trees in the middle background of Leonardo's unfinished picture of the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, Florence (for an illustration of the detail see A.E. Popham, op. cit., pl. 36). The drawing is dated by Carlo Pedretti to circa 1480, C. Pedretti, op. cit., 1978, p. 152. The presence of the rider in the Carter Brown drawing, omitted in the picture, is echoed by the battle between men on horseback taking place just on the right of the trees by the standing horse.

The picture was originally commissioned for the Church of San Donato a Scopeto, outside Florence. It was probably begun in March 1481 and left unfinished on Leonardo's departure for Milan in circa 1482. A drawing of Two Horsemen in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, shows the right hand horseman in the same position as the Carter brown drawing placed next to its mirror image, the second therefore in the same direction as the picture (A.E. Popham, op. cit., pl. 65). A study for the leg of the rider in both drawings is at Windsor Castle, C. Pedretti, op. cit., 1978, pl. 26. A.E. Popham records three compositional drawings for the picture, including one in reverse, and a number of studies for the figures and the background battles, A.E. Popham, op. cit., pls. 39-66.


This celebrated drawing is one of the last works by Leonardo still in private hands. Art historians are unanimous in dating the drawing to circa 1480 and identifying it as a preliminary study made in preparation of the Adoration of the Magi (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Notably, among the authorities on Leonardo who have stated this opinion are Bernard Berenson, Sir Kenneth Clark, and Carlo Pedretti. It is easy to see the justice of their view. In style the drawing is extremely close to other silverpoint drawings by Leonardo from the late 1470s and early 1480s. For example, the present sheet can be closely compared to two equestrian studies by Leonardo, also in silverpoint and also for the Adoration of the Magi (Royal Library, Windsor Castle, RL 12315 and RL 12285). Like those studies, the present drawing is rendered in the greatest subtlety, with short parallel grey-brown strokes flickering across the skin of the horse. These lines serve to record both the rippling energy of the animal's musculature, and the minute shifts in chiaroscuro caused by the fall of light over the horse's body. The light is softly radiant and yet cool and crepuscular. Clark has noted that 'The most magical of these [the preparatory sketches for the Adoration of the Magi] are the silverpoint studies of horses, in which the delicate medium is used to give a curious lunar quality of light' (op. cit., 1939, p. 29). This is true of the present drawing.

The work is linked to the Adoration of the Magi by motif as well as style. A horse in a nearly identical pose appears in a drawing of Two Horsemen formerly in the L.C.G. Clark Collection, and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Popham, op. cit, pl. 65). The two horses depicted in that drawing are nearly mirror opposites of one another: i.e. whereas one horse, as in the Carter Brown drawing, raises his right front leg and turns his head to his right, the other horse raises his left front leg and turns his head to his left. A horse in exactly that pose appears in the centre of the background of the Adoration of the Magi between the two trees. Indeed, Pedretti has suggested that Leonardo made the Brown drawing as he was working out this part of the painting and before he had decided to show the horse facing to its left instead of its right. Pedretti's hypothesis is based on his observation of the horizontal line that transverses the bottom of the Brown drawing: the placement of this line in relation to the horse resembles the ground-line for the comparable horse in the Adoration of the Magi.

From early in the design process for the painting, Leonardo intended to include a horse or horses in its background. His earliest surviving compositional sketch related to the picture shows a horse at the centre in the distance with one front leg raised and the head forcefully turned to one side (Musée du Louvre, Paris; Popham, op. cit., pl. 42). A horse in a similar pose appears among the fighting horsemen in the background of Leonardo's perspective study for the painting (Gabinetto dei Disegni, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Popham, op. cit., pl. 53). A silverpoint study at Windsor Castle contains yet another variation of a horse in this pose (Royal Library, Windsor Castle, RL 12285); this can be seen best in an infra-red photograph of the drawing (e.g. Pedretti, op. cit., 1984, pl. 6). Still another variant appears in a drawing of a horseman fighting a dragon in the Louvre, Rothschild Collection, also from around 1480. Clearly, Leonardo was fascinated by the dynamic and expressive possibilities of this pose.

The pose of the horse in the Carter Brown drawing has been compared to that of the Horses of San Marco (Pedretti and Trutty-Coohill, op. cit., p. 37). Indeed, Leonardo may have been especially conscious of their design. In 1479 the Venetian Senate had announced a competition for the commission of the equestrian monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni, originally intended for the Piazza San Marco. The winning entry in the competition was by Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo's teacher. But there is reason to believe that another Florentine artist, possibly Leonardo himself, also contested for the commission (A. Butterfield, The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio, New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 166-167). Either way Leonardo may have had both cause and opportunity to study the Horses of San Marco. Nevertheless, if Leonardo drew inspiration from this classical source, he transformed it by making the appearance of motion more pronounced. Whereas the Horses of San Marco advance in a relatively direct manner, the horse in the present drawing appears more complex and dynamic in its movement and balance.

Especially noteworthy is the helical or countervailing motions of the head and leg of the horse. This represents an early example of the figura serpentinata, the ideal of beautiful, spiralling motion. This ideal was probably first conceived by Leonardo and was to become an important compositional principle in sixteenth century art. It emerges in Leonardo's drawings in the course of the 1470s, most notably the studies for the Madonna del Gatto. The first instance of it in sculpture is the Putto with a Dolphin by Verrocchio, Leonardo's teacher. But that sculpture is probably from the early 1480s and most likely shows Leonardo's influence on his former master, not the other way around. The appeal of the figura serpentinata was that it combines a maximum of grace and motion. Leonardo's journals are full of notes regarding the primacy of motion as the sign of emotion and life in art. For example, he wrote 'The movement which is depicted ... must be made with great immediacy, exhibiting in the figure great emotion and fervour, otherwise this figure will be deemed twice dead, inasmuch as it is dead because it is a depiction, and dead yet again in not exhibiting motion either of the mind or of the body.' He applied these principles to the depiction of animals as well as the human form. Regarding the classical equestrian statue in Pavia, the so-called regisole (destroyed in the eighteenth century), Leonardo wrote 'the movement is to be praised more than anything else ... Where natural vivacity is lacking, it is necessary to supply it.' The Carter Brown drawing exhibits the kind of vivacity and vitality that Leonardo so highly praised.

Leonardo was particularly concerned to coordinate the movements of the horse and rider so that their interrelation would augment the overall sense of motion. In the Carter Brown drawing, the interplay of the limbs is especially beautiful. The right arm of the man, the right foreleg of the horse, and the head of the horse form roughly parallel diagonals; and the right leg of the man and the left foreleg of the horse also closely correspond. The staggered pace of these lines suggest the forward impetus and up-and-down rhythm of the horse's movement.

The present work includes several gestures and motifs that preoccupied Leonardo around 1480 and, indeed, for much of his career. One example of this is the way the rider holds his right arm down and away from his body at approximately a 45 degree angle. There are many comparably posed figures in Leonardo's oeuvre: for instance, the Christ Child in a study for the Benois Madonna (British Museum, London; Popham, op. cit., pl. 15); He even holds His head in a position like that of the rider's. Another drawing of the Infant Christ from this period also extends His arm in a similar manner (British Museum, London; Popham, op. cit., pl. 28A). So does the Christ Child in the painting of Adoration of the Magi, and the figure of Saint Jerome in the Vatican panel. Throughout much of his life, Leonardo continued to experiment with designs showing a rider mounted on a horse and swinging his arm to the side. Notably, some of his drawings for both the Sforza monument and the Trivulzio monument show the rider in such a pose (although in both cases with the arm held laterally rather than down as in the present drawing). In his notebooks, Leonardo recommended that painters represent figures with extended arms: 'If you wish to produce a figure that shall of itself look light and graceful, you must make the limbs elegant and extended.'

Another favourite motif incorporated in the drawing is the representation of the head seen somewhat from above and in three-quarter view. Leonardo regularly preferred depicting this vantage. The horse to the left of the central group in the Adoration of the Magi holds its head in this manner, as does the horse in the middle ground at the left. Some drawings for the Sforza monument likewise show the head turned this way (e.g. Royal Library, Windsor Castle, RL 12358r). Leonardo loved to depict human heads poised in this fashion too. The Virgin, the Child, and the two elderly men flanking the central group in the Adoration of the Magi are all represented with their heads in three-quarter view seen slightly from above. The same is true of figures in the Madonna del Gatto drawings, the Saint Jerome, the Benois Madonna, the Burlington House cartoon, now in the National Gellery, London, and elsewhere.

Fighting horsemen were a common motif in the background of Renaissance images of the Adoration of the Magi. Another painting which depicts this - and one Leonardo certainly knew - was Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi, made in 1423 for the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Trinità, Florence. This motif referred to the popular legend that the Magi were at war with one another before uniting in adoration of the Christ Child.

It has been widely observed that Leonardo's use of silverpoint represented a novel departure in the technique. The medium permitted no changes or erasures; traditionally therefore it had been used in exercises where precision, accuracy and discipline were paramount. From early in his career, however, Leonardo used silverpoint with unprecedented freedom, making of it a medium for the exploration and perfection of compositional ideas. In the present work, for example, it is evident that Leonardo has tried out at least three different positions of the head of the rider, and multiple positions for the back legs of the horse. This kind of searching for compositional solutions with silverpoint is found in other early Leonardo drawings, for example, Study of the drapery of a woman kneeling to the left (Galleria Corsini, Rome; Popham, op. cit., pl. 1). Sir Ernst Gombrich has associated this new practice with Leonardo's concentration on motion, emotion and spontaneity in the creative process. 'So, painter,' Leonardo wrote, 'rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your picture rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.' Gombrich has commented, 'The reversal of workshop standards is complete. The sketch is no longer the preparation for a particular work, but is part of a process which is constantly going on in the artist's mind; instead of fixing the flow of imagination it keeps it in flux' (E. Gombrich, Norm and Form, 3rd edition, London and New York, 1978, p. 61). This kind of fluid and continuous creative process is especially evident in the Adoration of the Magi, which Leonardo was still revising when he stopped work on the panel to move to Milan some time around 1482.

The Adoration of the Magi was made for the Church of San Donato a Scopeto, just outside the walls of Florence. The picture is first documented in July 1481; according to that record the commission of the picture was granted to Leonardo in 'marzo 1480.' In the Renaissance the Florentine calendar marked the New Year on the 25th of March; it is therefore unclear if the commission in fact dates to 1480 or 1481. Most scholars believe that Leonardo began work on the picture in March 1481. However, a minority of experts think that he may have started it the year before. One reason they hold this opinion is that the drawings seemingly related to the picture begin with sketches for an Adoration of Shepherds (e.g. Popham, op. cit., pl. 39), rather than an Adoration of Magi. Leonardo, therefore, either must have planned and/or worked on two similar pictures circa 1478-1481, or he changed his mind as he worked on the commission for the San Donato painting. In any event, the summer of 1481 appears to have been the period of Leonardo's most intense work on the picture; payments for it are recorded in July, August and September of that year, including a large expenditure on wood, possibly for the panel support (for the documents, see E. Villata, ed., Leonardo da Vinci, i documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee, Milan, 1999, pp. 12-14). It is not known when Leonardo abandoned the picture. He is last documented in Florence in September 1481 and he is first recorded in Milan, where he moved to enter the service of Ludovico Sforza, in April 1483. It is generally presumed Leonardo moved there sometime in 1482.

When he stopped work on the Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo had sketched out the principal elements in brown or black wash (it is hard to tell which colour under the ancient varnish) and white heightening. Many passages are of indeterminate or undecipherable form and in no area had he begun to apply the upper or final layers of pigment. Despite its unfinished state, the picture has been praised and studied since its creation, and it is widely considered to be both Leonardo's first great masterpiece and the first work of the High Renaissance. It is celebrated especially for its clear geometric structure, its unprecedented level of expressiveness and its powerful rilievo and chiaroscuro.

Writing about Leonardo's equestrian studies for the painting, Sir Kenneth Clark memorably stated that these drawings represent 'wild ethereal horses, with nervous heads thrown back on twisted necks. They are the spies and outriders of Leonardo's imagination entering the world of conventional Florentine art, soon to be followed by the mysterious company which fills the Uffizi Adoration.' This perfectly describes the beauty of the Carter Brown Horse and Rider.

Dr. Andrew Butterfield

Vice-President, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries


Leonardo da Vinci's Horse and Rider from the collection of J. Carter Brown is a study in reverse for the horse seen framed between two trees in the background of the Adoration of the Magi, in the Uffizi, Florence. This large panel, commissioned in March 1481 by the monks of San Donato a Scopeto, remained unfinished when Leonardo departed for Milan in 1482. According to Vasari, he left it in the house of a friend, Giovanni de Benci, of whose sister, Ginevra, Leonardo had painted a portrait in the late 1470s, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Despite the artist's absence, the unfinished panel astonished and fascinated intellectual and artistic circles of the time. Raphael admired it greatly and years later sought inspiration for poses and deployment of figures for his monumental School of Athens. Because of its unfinished state, the picture reveals more of Leonardo's process and purpose than would the high degree of definition found in a polished Florentine altarpiece of the period. The general sense of grace emanating from the figures partly obscured in darkness, and the evocation of movement visible in the skirmish of horsemen in the distance, were in themselves challenges to the traditional iconography of the subject of the Adoration of the Magi. Kenneth Clark considered the picture to be an overture to all Leonardo's work, full of themes that would recur throughout his career. One of these, his love of horses, is expressed and explored for the first time in the present drawing.

The Carter Brown sheet belongs to an early group of studies of horses executed in silverpoint on delicately prepared paper, and is the last to remain in private hands: a study of two horsemen, one in the same direction, the other in reverse, formerly in the L.C.G. Clarke Collection and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (fig. x); a study for the prancing horse and rider formerly in the Colville Collection which was recently sold by private treaty through Christie's to the same museum (fig. x); another smaller study for the same group in the Ambrosiana, Milan; and two more sheets at Windsor executed in the same technique but perhaps dating to early in the artist's Milanese sojourn. Beyond their immediate purpose as preparatory studies for the Uffizi panel, these drawings reveal not only an impressive understanding of equine anatomy, but also convey the intelligence of a cultivated man who perceived that through images of horsemanship he could express the many subtle paradoxes inherent in classical

ideals. The depiction of horses became, for Leonardo, a poetical theme of expression and analysis, an anchor for his humanist thought. This point is perfectly exemplified in the juxtaposition of two types of horses in the background of the Adoration. To the right of the central axis and framed by two trees stands a noble horse drawn with an elegant foreshortening of its stride; it is reminiscent of the Paduan bronze statuettes created by Riccio and his contemporaries for the delectation of learned connoisseurs. On the other side of the trees can be seen a cavalry battle, where horses and riders are engaged in violent confrontation, the opposite of the balance and nobility of the first horse. Leonardo would return to these extremes in the now lost Battle of Anghiari, illustrating side by side the opposing expressions of political order. A sheet in the Louvre (inv. 781) carries studies of both themes: at the top two knights fighting a dragon and below three horses, one of which in exactly the same position as that of the Carter Brown drawing seen from a different angle.

The presence of horses in depictions of the Adoration painted in the late 15th Century is not unusual. Leonardo's horses in the Uffizi panel share some characteristics with the white stallions painted by Botticelli in the Adoration tondo in the National Gallery, London. Both are descended from the stylized breed painted by Gozzoli in his Procession of the Magi, in the Palazzo Medici: small heads, round nostrils and broad chests. They probably derive from Pisanello's massive medieval chargers. What sets Leonardo's horses apart from those of his predecessors and contemporaries is movement, i.e. motion implied and described. He took great care to define their volume and how it is transformed in movement, seeking a three-dimensional effect which forms a sharp contrast to the hieratic pose of the figures in the foreground of the Adoration. Leonardo thus granted his horses a degree of vitality denied to his figures. To understand such a deliberate choice requires an analysis of his use of Albertian perspective; his reliance on Florentine studio practice; and above all his humanist approach to science, philosophy and antiquity. Interestingly, Leonardo who was admired by his contemporaries as a virtuoso musician, was dispatched to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, by Lorenzo the Magnificent with a gift from the Florentine Republic of a lira di Braccio in the shape of a horse's skull.

Leonardo emerged only gradually out of Andrea Verrocchio's studio as an independent artist. Despite his reputation as a virtuoso draughtsman and musician at this stage of his life few complete works can be attributed to Leonardo's hand before he undertook the painting of the Adoration in his late twenties. The scale of the panel and complexity of the composition must have left the patrons in little doubt that the young artist would encounter difficulties completing it. Already in 1478 the Priors of the Signoria, the Florence town hall, had signed a contract with Leonardo for an altarpiece for the Chapel of San Bernardo in the Palazzo Vecchio which, for reasons quite outside the artist's control, was scarcely begun; the commission was eventually given to Filippino Lippi in his stead. Three years later, in similar fashion, the commission of the Adoration also was handed to Filippino Lippi. Leonardo's tendency to leave work unfinished was to become a trait of his genius.

The reasons behind Leonardo's departure for Milan have been extensively discussed. Kenneth Clark pointed to the lack of sympathy between Leonardo and the ruling Medici circle who dominated the city. Leonardo regarded himself as an engineer gifted with a natural curiosity in physical phenomena. In this respect his views clashed with Neo-Platonist speculation fashionable in Florence at the time. The Christian reading of Plato's work that Marsilio Ficino proposed to Florentine scholars was too abstract and detached from reality to satisfy Leonardo's fascination with nature. The passionate idealism which resulted soon became hermetic and self-centred. Besides, such debates were loaded with religious undertones which came to plague Florence's political life and culminated in the Savonarola crisis. Although Leonardo has been presented by many critics as a universal genius, it is necessary to note that the young artist never mastered Latin properly and found himself in an awkward position in the learned circles of his time. His career involved a long struggle to establish his reputation. Much of his work stands as a challenge to condescending literati as well as to his professional colleagues who subscribed to the exacting rules of the Guilds. His position was at best that of a favoured courtier. As a thinker, Leonardo left his notes in a state of chaos, believing that the potential of his ideas was more important than the final form. It took his heir, Francesco Melzi, several decades to put into some order the various manuscripts including his most advanced theoretical work, the Treatise on Painting.

Leonardo's behaviour, according to Daniel Arasse, sprang out of his deep philosophical belief in the permanent mutability of the world, an opinion which, at the time, fitted neither the traditional Aristotelian school nor the Neo-Platonist trends. In aligning himself with a school of thought which would lead to the discoveries of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno and Kepler, Leonardo made some astonishing discoveries, but it also condemned him to remain an enigma to most of his contemporaries. His facility as a highly trained and skilled artist equipped him with an unusually responsive vehicle through which to illustrate his ideas. However, his days at the elementary school, the Scuola d'Abaco, provided him with the pragmatic form of thought associated with that of businessmen, bankers and engineers.

Leonardo belonged to a generation that agreed with Pico de la Mirandola's principle, expressed in his Treatise on Human Dignity, that man is given the free will to choose to be either good or bad. The answer to such a dilemma can affect the world in so many ways that it sets the world in permanent motion. This issue of free will which later triggered the explosion of the Reformation was initially perceived as an assault on a static vision of the universe as taught in medieval Aristotelian schools. This idea fascinated Leonardo, who following Greek philosophers such as Plato and Protagoras, regarded 'man as a measure of all things'. In a famous drawing now in the Accademia in Venice Leonardo drew a man fitting perfectly within a circle, symbol of the world. As a result the artist sought all his life to study and to draw movement; from his vision of a deluge to his depictions of swirling water where movement is paramount; to his depictions of cloth drapery where the play of light and the definition of volume create the ultimate illusion that a leg or knee are only momentarily immobile. As with these the present drawing may have been drawn after a wax model. The bodies of the horse and rider are drawn around a vertical axis, faintly visible, running from the left of the horse's head down to the lower edge where the front legs seem to converge. Leonardo's horses in the Adoration are shown either gracefully moving, as in the present drawing, or fighting vigorously. Thus the juxtaposition in the background of the Adoration illustrates allegorically the dialectic of Grace, the origin of movement and the essence of redemption. The Carter Brown study shows the steadiness of graceful movement generating a sense of calm nobility. This sense of movement is accentuated by the sketch of the rider, looking as slight as a jockey. The pose of his head reveals as many as five pentimenti that suggest contiguous movement arising from the controlled skittishness of the horse. The rider becomes insubstantial in comparison to the strength of the animal's impending movement, and will therefore become superfluous to the final composition.

The horse sketched on the panel of the Adoration of the Magi in light brown outlines would have been white if the painting had been completed, just as in other quattrocento depictions of the subject. In Christian iconography a white stallion is a symbol of majesty ridden by Him whom the Book of Revelations (19:11-16) calls Faithful and True, that is, by Christ. Saint John goes on to describe the Heavenly Host mounted on white chargers, the throng of angels found in medieval manuscripts. Understanding of this iconography would have been widespread in Leonardo's time and it is no surprise that the horse symbolising Grace appears just above the figure of the Virgin. Nor is it any accident that Leonardo placed the horse at the foot of a stairway framed between a palm tree, symbol of the Old Testament, and a young and vigorous tree, symbolic of the New Testament.

To analyse how Leonardo achieved his visionary effect requires a knowledge of the artist's theoretical approach to perspective, sculpture, science and antiquity. The virtuosity of the dramatic foreshortening of the horse displayed in the Carter Brown drawing was the type of challenge which appealed to Florentine artists of the quattrocento and it is essential to differentiate what came out of tradition from what was truly innovative. Since Uccello's systematic use of perspective in his famous Medici cycle of Battles according to principles set out by Alberti, each artist took the measure of his virtuosity from his ability to master perspective. Yet in the Carter Brown sheet perspective is far from being the only issue tackled.

For Leonardo, perspective is at the core of his theory and its use goes far beyond the simple outline of a figure within a composition. A drawing at the Uffizi related to the early stage of the Adoration reveals his ambitious emphasis on perspective (fig. x). The monumentality of the architectural volumes are vigorously structured into a grid of vanishing lines creating an ethereal space in which only horses and camels are sketched, placed like pieces on a chessboard. Such a masterful sheet is however in sharp contrast to another drawing at the Louvre (fig. x) which Kenneth Clark regarded as feeble on account of its poor sense of perspective: the barn in the background is incorrectly drawn and some anatomical features of various figures are awkward. In fact it could be argued that the Louvre drawing served another purpose, that of studying the necessary foreshortening and optical corrections required by high relief sculpture. Such an assumption raises the question of Leonardo's attitude towards sculpture and painting. In his Treatise on Painting he writes that 'applying myself to sculpture no less than to painting and having practised both to the same degree, it seems to me that I am able to form a judgement about them.' (translated in M. Kemp, Leonardo on Painting, London, 1989, p. 38). The statement is supported by the survival of these two drawings.

Leonardo's self-confidence allowed him to switch from painting to sculpture and back again, a versatility which was nevertheless shared with many Florentine artists trained in the studios of Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo. Many compositions of the period were either executed as terracotta panels and marble reliefs, or as paintings and presentation drawings executed in silverpoint. Leonardo's celebrated Head of a Warrior from the British Museum is strangely close in style and composition to the marble relief in the National Gallery of Art in Washington attributed to Verrocchio's studio. Another patent example is the composition of the Madonna and Child painted on panel attributed to Piermatteo D'Amelia now in Frankfurt and a terracotta relief, virtually identical, attributed to Francesco di Simone, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (P.L. Rubin and A. Wright, Renaissance Florence, the Art of the 1470s, exh. cat., London, 1999, nos. 27 - 28, both illustrated). Many works of art commissioned in late 15th Century Florence could therefore have been realised either as painting or as sculpture.

For Leonardo the end product and the craft required to manufacture a composition into its final shape are not aims in themselves. The Adoration was never completed and many critics doubt that the master ever intended to finish it. That one preparatory drawing may emphasize perspective while another studies its sculptural dimension, stands more as testimony to Leonardo's inquisitive turn of mind than it indicates a specific intention on his behalf to turn the Adoration into a sculpture or a painting. In the opening chapter of the Treatise on Painting Leonardo clearly favours painting, criticizing the mechanical aspect of sculpture as a craft. In fact, Leonardo regarded the mastery of any technique as a means of understanding form and its successful representation, just as logic is regarded as the language of reason. Both the art of painting and sculpture are at the service of higher goals. 'The first business of the painter is to make a plane surface appear to be a body raised and standing out from this surface, and whoever excels the others in this matter deserves the highest praise. And this study or rather this summit of our learning depends on lights and shades.' (translated in A. Blunt, Artistic Theory in Italy 1450 - 1660, Oxford, 1940, p. 33). Perspective and modelling were therefore tools helping Leonardo achieve the ultimate illusion of a perfect recreation of nature as it emerged from his imagination.

Much of the freedom of execution found in the Carter Brown sheet aims at achieving that goal. The medium of silverpoint chosen by Leonardo to execute his study was one of the most traditional yet exacting techniques used at the time, yet the casual ease with which he handles the medium demonstrates a defiance of the conventional rules of draughtsmanship. The hind legs of the horse are barely delineated, the rider is little more than a shadow consisting of various pentimenti while the horse's chest and head are carefully modelled. Gombrich remarked that Leonardo's extensive use of pentimenti departed from standard medieval studio practice which regarded careful delineation of form and tidy execution as essential (E. Gombrich, Norm and Form: Leonardo's method for working out composition, London, 1985, pp. 58 - 63). Leonardo later explained his methods of quickly sketching a figure 'do not give the limbs too much finish: indicate their position which you can then work out at your leisure - you will first attempt in a drawing to give the eye indicators of the intention and the invention which you first made in your imagination.' (translated in E. Gombrich, op. cit., p. 219). A drawing thus represents the first visual statement in an artist's creative process. Its function is no longer limited to a mechanical step in the elaboration of a composition, it contains the seed of experiment and the material out of which theory will be formulated. An observation made in the Treatise on Painting gives a clear indication of the theoretical implications which can be detected in a sheet such as the Carter Brown study. In a section dedicated to the Perspective of Disappearance, Leonardo comments that 'the image of a horse when seen from afar would lose its legs before its head because the legs are thinner than the head; and one would lose the head before the torso which being an oval form, translates into a cylinder where one would lose the breadth before the length.' (translated in M. Kemp, op. cit., p. 85). Indeed, Leonardo here explores issues which go beyond Albertian geometry. It is no longer a matter of straightforward perspective. It tackles the concept of optical illusion. Leonardo wrote these notes some time after he executed the Carter Brown study, during the decade following his departure from Florence, yet the innovative way in which the Carter Brown study is drawn heralded a new age in which the artist was no longer dependent on the mechanical aspect of his craft but found in draughtsmanship a higher form of intellectual expression ranking alongside poetry as a liberal art.

It is somewhat difficult to dissociate Leonardo's purely artistic concerns from his unrelenting pursuit of knowledge. The master found in the graphic elaboration of his works a means of exploring the world which surrounded him. His experimental methods have given rise among critics of the past two centuries to the general assumption that Leonardo was foremost an inventor and scientist interested in all kinds of natural phenomena, a forerunner of modern technology. However, such a positivist interpretation of his work would have baffled the artist and his contemporaries. The quest for knowledge was then universal, all new facts contributing to the edification of the mind and soul. Humanists perceived no dichotomy between the various fields of intellectual investigation. At a time when analogy was the favoured means of reasoning, any factual discovery had an immediate resonance in philosophy and theology. Leonardo's interest in horses illustrates how wide was his scope of intellectual enquiry. The Carter Brown sheet is one of the first expressions of that recurrent theme which would take many different forms throughout his career: from a poetical evocation of Christian iconography to scientific analysis of equine anatomy, to the expression of political power in his projects of equestrian monuments to Francesco Sforza and Giovanni Giacomo Trivulzio. Each time Leonardo would enrich his vision of the perfect horse not only through life studies of the animal but also through the use of his subtle reference to antiquity. This is perhaps the aspect of Leonardo's range of interests which has been least studied. Unlike his contemporaries who took pride in making clear their reference to antique statuary, Leonardo's debt to antiquity is less overt but, as a result, all the more effective. Within his compositions, Kenneth Clark, Martin Kemp and Carlo Pedretti have been able to trace a large number of poses directly derived from archaeological finds of the artist's time. Leonardo, who trained as a sculptor, looked carefully at antique marbles such as the series of muses from Hadrian's Villa, now in the Prado, which gave him the inspiration for the pose of the Virgin in the large cartoon for The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Baptist in the National Gallery, London. Leonardo could co-ordinate his research on the antique with that on anatomy to such a degree that he achieved the perfect synthesis of two schools of thought. Indeed, most humanists sought to extract from antiquity an abstract principle which would link their own modern world with enduring values of the Roman Empire. Leonardo himself wrote 'imitation of things ancient is more laudable than that of modern things.' (translated in P. Marani, Leonardo da Vinci, New York, 2000, p. 210).

The stride of the horse in the Carter Brown sheet is that found in several antique equestrian statues. It is reminiscent of that of the four bronze horses of San Marco in Venice but also that of the regisole, an antique marble statue in Pavia. Leonardo would reuse the same pose in his two failed attempts at creating monumental statues for the rulers of Milan. In the present drawing the artist creates a model to which he would always return. In the same way that Leonardo subscribed to the idea that man is the measure of all things, he made of the horse the measure of all ancient values. Two drawings make an interesting confrontation. One is by Raphael, formerly at Chatsworth, executed in 1515 after the artist was appointed inspector of antiquities in Rome: it shows one of the Quirinal marble horses precisely measured (Drawings from Chatsworth, Christie's, London, 6 July 1987, lot 10). The second sheet is by Leonardo, at Windsor (D. Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, Paris, 1999, p. 246, fig. 177): a study from life similarly inscribed with measurements, of a horse belonging to the celebrated stables of the Duke of Milan to which Leonardo had access to prepare his statue of Francesco Sforza. Although the drawings were executed thirty years apart, and in very different circumstances, they spring from the same ideal of noble monumentality expressed through horses. Here is visible the same communion of thought which had struck Raphael on his first sight of Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi and inspired him for his School of Athens.

Two studies of horses at Windsor reveal the depth of Leonardo's reference to the antique in the present sheet. They represent grazing horses and have been related to the Adoration of the Shepherds already mentioned. They date from the same period and were executed in the same technique. However, the horses appear rather thin, with musculature indicative of age. Leonardo may have observed them from life or called upon memories of his childhood in the country town of Vinci. Their realistic depiction fits the pastoral tone of the Adoration of the Shepherds. Yet, with the new commission of the Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo switched to a far grander breed of stallion, one befitting the magnificence of the kingly Magi's procession. The horse displays none of the forlorn characteristics of his previous study. Leonardo's imagination is drawn to the Antique and the distance from nature is readily perceptible. Once Leonardo reached Milan, he would work at masking further his references to antiquity with anatomical research. The Carter Brown study is therefore the closest to Leonardo's immediate and instinctive response to the antique, the first step in a lifelong quest to inject his favourite theme with a new life.

The antique remains for Leonardo a source of scientific investigation. This interest goes beyond the simple admiration for a piece of sculpture. Like the architect who Leonardo later befriended in Rome, Bramante, the master regarded the study of proportion as the key to any understanding of the past. Drawing an antique, whether a ruin or a horse, found in mathematics a common denominator. Leonardo warned his readers 'may no one attempt at understanding me if he is not a mathematician' (translated in P. Marani, op. cit., p. 87). Every humanist hoped to achieve the eurhythmy - the art of harmonious body movement - and symmetry - Leonardo liked to switch the direction of his figures in order to gauge its appearance in reverse - which Vitruvius considered as the essence of architecture and therefore the order of the world. Proportion contained a hidden meaning which defined harmony between nature and art in all of its forms: music - and Leonardo was a virtuoso performer - architecture, poetry, painting and sculpture. It is no surprise that the horse for which the present drawing is a study stands in the Adoration of the Magi beside a stairway, sketched in its purest form without banisters.

The Carter Brown drawing is therefore the first jewel-like expression in Leonardo da Vinci's work of a theme which will mature throughout his career to become an icon of the High Renaissance. The sculptural horse, rich in iconographic content, innovative in the visionary quality of its use of perspective, imbued with all the classical ideals of its day, marks the beginning of a scientific quest to achieve harmony between nature and the arts. The profundity and virtuosity of this silverpoint study stands as a challenge to the limitations of the craft to which Leonardo had been trained in Florence, and heralds the beginning of his career as a genius doomed at times to be misunderstood but always retaining the enigmatic quality of a great visionary.

F. J. Borne

Director, Artemis Fine Arts-C.G. Boerner


Horse and Rider


Silverpoint on prepared paper




Leonardo da Vinci


Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, 1929.

Providence, Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, 1931.

Buffalo, New York, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Master Drawings selected from the Museums and Private Collections of America, 1935, pl. 20.

New London, Connecticut, Lyman Allyn Museum, 1936, no. 14.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, The Horse, its significance in Art, 1938, no. 18.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, An exhibition of Italian Paintings and Drawings, 1939, no. 21.

San Francisco, Golden Gate International Exposition, Master Drawings, an exhibition of Drawings from American Museums and Private Collections, 1940, no. 64.

Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Arts, Italian Drawings, 1330-1780, 1941, no. 16.

Omaha, Nebraska, Joslyn Memorial Art Museum, Society of Liberal Arts, 10th Anniversary celebration, 1941.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Drawings by European Masters from 14th through the 18th Century, 1945.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Seventy Master Drawings, a loan exhibition arranged in honor of Professor Paul J. Sachs on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, 1948, no. 11.

Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum, 1949, no. 78.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Masterpieces of Drawings, Diamond Jubilee Exhibition, 1950, no. 20.

Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Museum of Art, The Genius of Leonardo, 1951.

Syracuse, New York, Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, 1953.

Wellesley, Massachusetts, Farnsworth Museum, Wellesley College, 1955.

Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Museum of Science, Leonardo Exhibition, 1957.

Providence, Rhode Island, Annmary Brown Memorial, 1959.

New York, M. Knoedler and Company, and elsewhere, Great Master Drawings of seven centuries. A benefit exhibition of Columbia University for the Scholarship Fund of the Department of Fine Art and Archeology, 1959, no. 8.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Drawings from the Collection of John Nicholas Brown, 1962, no. 18.

New York, I.B.M. Gallery, 1963.

Providence, Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, Seven Centuries of Italian Art, 1965.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci's legacy of Art and Science, 1997-98, no. 21.


120 x 78 mm.


J. Richardson, Senior and Junior, An account of the statues, bas-reliefs, drawings and pictures in Italy, France &c., with remarks, 2nd edition, London, 1754, p.63, in the section on Florence ('A fine Adoration of the Magi, unfinish'd. At a distance Horses, and Horsemen: These my Father has the Studies of in several Drawings (small ones) and one large one of a Horse's Skull').

A. Venturi ed., I manoscritti e i disegni di Leonardo da Vinci publicati dalla Reale Commissione Vinciana: Disegni, Rome, 1928-36, II, no. 67.

T. Borenius, Pantheon, I, 1928, p. 166.

A.E. Popp, Leonardo da Vinci Zeichnungen, Munich, 1928.

K. Clark, A Catalogue of the Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle, London, 1935 (2nd edition, 1969, with C. Pedretti), I, p. xxiv and p. xxxv, n. 3.

B. Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, Chicago, 1938 (2nd edition, 1970), no. 1049A.

A.M. Frankfurter, 'Master Paintings and Drawings of Six Centuries at the Golden Gate', Art News, XXXVIII, 1940, p. 13, illustrated.

A.E. Popham, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1946 (2nd edition, 1964), no. 63B, illustrated.

L. Goldscheider, Leonardo da Vinci…, London, 1943 (2nd edition, 1959), no. 128 A.

I. Moskowitz, Great Drawings of All Time, New York, 1961, no. 157, illustrated.

C. Pedretti, 'Reconstruction of a Leonardo Drawing', Master Drawings, XVI (1978), p. 152, fig. 1.

C. Pedretti, I cavalli di Leonardo, studi sul cavallo e altri animali di Leonardo da Vinci dalla Biblioteca Reale nel Castello di Windsor, exhib. cat., Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, 1984, p. 38 under no. 5, and p. 50 under no. 19.

(. Pedretti and P. Trutty-Coohill, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and his Circle in America, Florence, 1993, p. 37, no. 4.

C( Ishikawa, 'Leonardo: Observer and Observed' in T. Fairbrother and C. Ishikawa eds., Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vi(ci's legacy of Art and Science, exhib. cat., Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, 1997-98, pp. 21-24.

(. (etze and T. Buchsteiner et al., Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist, exhib. cat., Tübingen, Institut für Kult(raustauch, 1998, p. 70, illustrated.


J. Richardson, Sen. (L. 2184).

The Duke of Rutland (?).

Robert S. Holford, and thence by descent to

Lt-Col. Sir George Holford, K.C.V.O.; Sotheby's London, 29 May 1928, lot 49 (£2,500 to Durlacher, for John Nicholas Brown).

John Nicholas Brown, Newport, Rhode Island, and thence by descent to

J. Carter Brown, Washington, D.C.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.