Leonardo da Vinci: A brush with genius

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The awe-inspiring paintings in the much anticipated Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery make it unmissable, says Adrian Hamilton

There's been so much hype about the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci exhibition opening this week that one approaches it with a certain caution.

Can an artist really be this good, let alone one who produced so few works and those in a calibrated perfection that might seem outdated today?

The answer is yes, yes, yes. Forget the hype, ignore all the articles and television programmes blazoning the trail to this show. Just walk into the second room to be faced by the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to his patron Ludovico Sforza, holding her pet ermine and looking sideways wistfully into space. On loan from Krakow, it is, like the Mona Lisa (and, to my mind, preferable to it), simply a perfect picture.

You can talk, as Leonardo's contemporaries did, of the harmony of composition. You can point, as art historians do, to the way that your eye is drawn from her hand and pet up to her face, the manner in which she dominates the space, her pale skin and fine features set against a plain background picked up in the black of her necklace, hairband and decorations on her dress. You can comment, as the exhibition does, on the exquisite detail in the costume, hair and the ermine's head. But in the end there is an ethereal quality about the portrait which is above and beyond the jewelled perfection of the parts, a look in the eye of the woman and a grace in her poise which speaks to the idea of beauty as much as the person of the sitter.

It's quite deliberate. Leonardo, a philosopher as much as an artist or rather a creator who saw art as a means of expressing philosophy, was always in search of the ideal. Michelangelo wanted to embrace life in its wholeness, to express the drama and the emotion of it. Leonardo was equally ambitious for totality, but he approached art as an inquirer, an experimenter, endlessly trying to get at the truth of nature through observation of it.

Recent shows have concentrated on his notebook observations and their accuracy. What the National Gallery aims with this show is to reassert him as a painter over and above a proto-scientist. In a sense they are one and the same thing. Observation, calculation and experimentation are the basis of much of his painting as his notebooks and drawing.

A prolific painter he was not. In a career covering 50 years, Leonardo, the bastard son of a Tuscan notary, died aged 67, and seems on the evidence to have started only 20 paintings and completed only 15 or 16. That he failed to do more was a reflection of a man far more excited by the search and discovery than the making use of it. Even a projected treatise on painting in the manner of Aristotle he started but failed to complete. And what he did complete too often rapidly decayed through trying to do too much with existing oil paints. Michelangelo spent his life trying to get due payments out of his patrons. Leonardo spent his life being pursued by them to complete the works for which they had made down payments.

Instead of trying to encompass the great man's whole career, what the National Gallery has done in this exhibition, and triumphantly so, is to concentrate on his 17 years in Milan from 1482 to 1499, most in the service to Ludovico Sforza, when, with a stipend from the Duke and the favour of the court, he was able to set up in his own studio and bend his interests largely to his own whim. It's an approach which has enabled the Gallery to gather together nearly every painting from the period – the show has nine finished works, more than in any previous exhibition since before the Second World War – and to put them together with preparatory drawings, initial cartoons and unfinished works to show just how exact, and exacting, Leonardo's approach to his art was. It is a concentration which has given the project academic credibility and a reason to seek loans.

The paintings, rather than the research, is what most visitors will wish to see, however, and rightly so. As well as the much-travelled portrait of Gallerani, the Gallery has managed to show together for the first time its own Virgin of the Rock from 1491-92 with the Louvre's earlier version, The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist from 1486. The French museum has never allowed this picture to travel before, and facing each other across the room the two give a fascinating insight into the way that Leonardo constantly sought to refine and develop the ideas in his works.

Then there's the recently restored and re-attributed Salvator Mundi, somewhat the worse for wear but still forceful in its presence, plus borrowings from the Vatican (the unfinished St Jerome); the Hermitage in St Petersburg (the rather too sweet Virgin and Child); the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan (an affectionate Portrait of a Young Man); the Louvre again (Portrait of a Woman with a most challenging look); and the Duke of Buccleuch's stolen and recovered Madonna of the Yarnwinder with figures and rocks by the master.

Put together with works from the Queen's incomparable collection of Leonardo drawings, The Burlington House Cartoon and other sketches, and the National Gallery has pretty much got a complete house of the great man's Milan years. It's even showing (in a separate gallery in the main building) the Royal Academy's copy of the much-damaged Last Supper in Milan by Giampietrino from the time of Leonardo's death, and a formidable group of preparatory sketches, to round off the picture.

It certainly makes the case for this being Leonardo's most productive period artistically. Does it also make the case for Leonardo as the greatest artist of the Renaissance or indeed in history, as he would have wished and his contemporaries acclaimed him? He was a more precise observer though not a greater graphic artist than Michelangelo. He was as graceful, though no more so, in his paintings of Virgin and Child than Raphael. He could sometimes be too complex and prepared for his own good. But come the human figure there is just no one like him in the depth of his vision or the genius in capturing the form of the figure and the fall of light upon it. He desired to make painting more real than sculpture, and he succeeded.

It is his sublime representation of beauty that makes him so loved and still so revered. It is not a vast exhibition, just half a dozen rooms of well spaced pictures. But for all the claustrophobia and limitations of the Sainsbury gallery in which it is shown, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition will not disappoint.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) to 5 February

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice