Over the past five centuries, the dazzling works of artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci have continued to fascinate the masses, drawing the attention of both fans and critics. Born in 1452 in Italy, Leonardo managed to transcend his time and place, exemplifying the Italian renaissance and inventing things like helicopters, tanks, calculators and solar panels, centuries before the technology to build them would be realized.
While Leonardo anticipated many later mechanical discoveries, he is most famous for his paintings. At one time, the king of France even stated: “No man knows more than da Vinci” (Saari, Saari and Carnagie 22). His cumulative abilities are most appreciated because he lived during the Renaissance, “an age that was identified with genius, new ideas, exploration, and new ways of thinking” (Saari, Saari and Carnagie 22). This paper examines Leonardo’s style and perspective, as portrayed in several of his most famous paintings.
Leonardo’s General Style
Leonardo believed that the most important element in a successful painting is the comprehension of the structure. He was able to examine people and objects and identify how they are formed. This enabled him to conceptualize the flight of birds, which was captured a few hundred years later using slow-motion cameras. Da Vinci was very inquisitive and perceived that it was possible to relay emotions through paintings. He was able to achieve this using ‘sfumato’ style, whereby he painted a lighter shade of color, and gradually incorporated darker tones to produce a murky blush. His art work sought to show emotion, which is probably what led him to paint his most notable masterpiece, the Mona Lisa (Saari, Saari, and Carnagie 45).
Leonardo used oil paint on poplar to create this famous painting in the period between 1503 and 1507. The painting measures 76.8 by 53 cm, and can currently be found in Musee du Louvre, Paris. Langley claims that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, and while there may have been other painters that were as talented or possibly more skilled than da Vinci, Leonardo was certainly the best portrait painter.
The Mona Lisa is one of the paintings that reveal Leonardo’s style of painting, sfumato, combining portrait and landscape to establish a 3D effect or depth. Also, da Vinci was able to capture a variety of emotions and traits in the one painting, allowing viewers to appreciate something new about it every time they looked at it from a different direction. This gave the portrait a sense of mystery since a viewer could not possibly identify all the portrayed emotions and traits of Mona Lisa’s personality from a single glance. For instance, a viewer cannot identify the source of her glow between her mouth and eyes (Langley 16).
Lady with an Ermine
This 53.4 by 39.3 cm, oil on wood panel painting was created between 1483 and 1490 and is believed to have been modeled by the mistress of Duke Sforza, a powerful prince in Renaissance Italy. This painting is currently on display at Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. Chou claims that the ability of Leonardo to express precise facial subtleties has been unmatched for centuries, and in this particular painting, he was able to reveal the beauty and virtues of Cecilia Gallerani.
Despite her high level of influence in Milan and admiration by all, Leonardo was able to portray Cecilia realistically, showing her relaxed elegance when holding a fierce cannibal, the ermine. The painting shows her as a saint and classy person with a moderate level of insecurity and conceit. Chou argues that this painting reveals the high level of da Vinci’s discerning eye, allowing him to capture aspects of the human character that are not easily detectable (Chou).
Ginevra de’ Benci
This oil on wood, 42.7 by 37 cm painting was made by Leonardo in 1474, during his eighth year as Verrocchio’s apprentice. In this painting, Leonardo brings together a portrait and landscape painting but chooses to make the model sulky, unlike Mona Lisa and Cecilia. His attention to detail is, however, as remarkable as in other paintings, given his ability to express a withdrawn, haughty and unforgiving look by squinting one of her eyes.
This was probably aimed at showing the model’s dissatisfaction with her forthcoming marriage to Niccolini. The background employs the sfumato style of cloudy sky, which was achieved using an overlay of oil finish to establish a thin layer of mist. This was among his first paintings, which showed that he had already mastered the ability to create depth and distance and render light and texture. This portrait was purchased by an American gallery in 1967 and can be viewed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C (Langley 7).
The Adoration of the Magi
This 246 by 243 cm painting was created in Uffizi, Florence in 1481-1482, where it is still found, though Leonardo moved to Milan before completing it. The yellow ochre and brown ink on panel painting was a dramatic portrayal of the collapse of the pagan world and the appearance of the Messiah. It is believed to be da Vinci’s declaration of sovereignty from Verrocchio, seeking to begin with a new and personal style. This is one of his most creative works, whereby he employs his style of light to dark shades, sfumato, at the base to isolate the Virgin and Child group (Virgin Mary and Magi) from the minor treatment of surrounding groups (faithful followers), without compromising on the sense of harmony and interconnection.
The adoration of the Magi painting is thought of as very progressive compared to other art works in Florentine, especially owing to the distinct differences between multiple groups like the praying shepherds, the dignified kings, and other participants. All figures are meant to direct their attention to Mary, acknowledging with a certain level of emotion, the divinity of the Christ Child (Marchetti and Panconesi 104). Compared to other paintings created in Florence that have a sense of expressing adoration, da Vinci chooses to create a mysterious background with an unfinished staircase and equestrian battles, which links the painting to the Augustinian convent of San Donato in Scopeto, which may have wanted to use the composition to relay its own scriptural understanding of the Adoration theme (Marchetti and Panconesi 105).
Leonardo da Vinci is considered a genius who transcended at a time of great discoveries. He died in 1519, though a few pieces of his works are still available for viewers who would like to experience his mastery of diverse disciplines including anatomy, music, engineering, and paintings. It is unlikely that his works can be fully and satisfactorily interpreted, especially his paintings, which are full of symbols, cryptograms, and references to mysteries about his life and home.
Some authors, for instance, claim that the Adoration of the Magi painting was finished, and was intended to relay that exact message. The renaissance was a time of beauty, but it was also associated with much violence, misery, and human suffering, which Leonardo managed to adequately, capture in his paintings and other art works (Marchetti and Panconesi 108).
Chou, Peter. Lady with an Ermine. 2003. Web.
Langley, Andrew. Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. Philadelphia, Pa: Running Press, 2001. Print.
Marchetti, C and E. Panconesi. “Leonardo da Vinci: beauty or human suffering in the world. Notes on pathological cutaneous alterations in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.” Joumal of the European Academy of DemlaloL VeMreol 8 (1997): 101-111. Print.
Saari, Peggy, Aaron Saari and Julie Carnagie. Renaissance & Reformation. Detroit: UXL, 2002. Print.