Leonardo da Vinci sought to understand fully both nature and human life in all their mystifying complexity and he did not yield in this quest. The Muse of Drawing bestowed upon him her tools and led him to use his genius for drawing. Five hundred years later, we still have his drawings which are a testament to a great artist.
The Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery marks the 500th Anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. It is the largest exhibition of his work in sixty-five years and more than two hundred of his finest drawings are on view. They come from a single album, compiled by the artist himself, passed to a pupil and have been in the Royal Collection since his death in Amboise, France in 1519. They were acquired by Charles 11 of England..
These drawings are an important legacy as they give some insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind and the full range of his interests, which included painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering, cartography, geology, astronomy, botany and anatomy.
The Exhibition opens with a self portrait of the handsome artist, and scholars say there is another portrait made shortly before he died, possibly the work of an assistant. It was discovered at Windsor by Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection Trust. The Exhibition has divided the exhibits into groups, maintaining an approximate chronological order. Martin Clayton arranged this and has also published a superb catalogue. Some large paintings are on view with the original drawings involved in their production close by.
The subjects of the groups often link. e.g wavy water and flowing hair, a seed before it is grown and a womb holding an embryo.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci, 25 kilometres West of Florence. He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer and a peasant girl. His paternal grandfather provided his home and education. There was never any doubt about Leonardo’s talent and by the age of 20 years he was an established artist in Florence.
In the 1470s Leonardo and young artists were experimenting in Florentine Art and they used drawing for new compositions and for the study of figures and faces. They also made drawings of the world around them. Leonardo’s early work is displayed and it is quite conventional. In 1840 he had begun an ambitious painting, The Adoration of the Magi. He added a profusion of animals and figures, and this work was unfinished when he left Florence for Milan.
His time in Milan is revealed in his drawings. He designed masques, banners and armaments and made drawings of various kinds of military cannons.
Leonardo da Vinci firmly believed universal laws were the foundations of all creations and he used drawings as he tried to understand how these laws worked, but not all his research reached fruition. The world was not ready for his scientific investigations and their value were often not recognised.
Leonardo was a man of many parts and this painter, sculptor, architect and engineer used drawings to capture fleeting moments. He tested his understanding of life with countless drawings and made sure he examined minute details. Animals, humans and plants were observed and dissected from every angle. He would fill pages with repeated drawings of the same face and draw hands cradling roughly sketched fingers. His subject matter was prolific; figures, engineering diagrams, maps, botanical drawings and architectural plans.
He was dedicated to analysing and deconstructing. He did not draw for the public; his drawing was personal for himself, a means of unravelling thought processes. As he corrected mistakes and adapted, his curiosity knew no bounds. His mind was enigmatic and mysterious.
Leonardo was fascinated by the movement of water, whirlpools and storms. He made an exact record of a flood weir in the River Arno and designed a drainage plan for the Pontine Marshes. He saw the rhythm of water as like a man’s biceps entwining. He combined vision with craftsmanship. At times, he was attracted to the grotesque; there are studies of a beautiful young woman transformed into an aged, ugly man.
Leonardo had always had a deep interest in anatomy and had the opportunity to dissect corpses which were usually hanged criminals. This was necessary for accurate representation of the human form, but it led to a kind of obsession. Scientists agreed his anatomical works were the most lucid ever seen and as such they were used in medical books for students.
Leonardo enjoyed cartography, surveying multiple strongholds round Florence; he produced several maps, some of which were for Cesare Borgia. He worked for him during the 1500s for a short period and he made several drawings of formidable weapons.
Horses were dissected and drawn from every angle. On view is the drawing for the lost painting, The Battle of Anghiari. Observe the movement of the horses as they advance, retreat, fall and maybe rise up again. Harnessed for war, some are mounted, some are not.
There are many Botanical works. They seem green and fresh even now.
On view is a vast reproduction of The Last Supper. Notice the sketch where the artist shows how he worked out the seating plan and the drawing of the Apostles.
Do not miss the drawings of a woman’s head in a revolving sequence of torsions as she gracefully turns from every angle; an extraordinary solo performance gracefully executed.
The very detailed drawing, The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman is very impressive. When drawing muscles and tendons, the artist arranged them so it could be seen how they fitted together with sections cut out to reveal knuckles and joints. These drawings are annotated in the artist’s tiny mirror script.
The Exhibition ends with several drawings of turbulent tempests and storms which interested the artist in his later years.
Leonardo da Vinci has left us a lasting legacy in his noble drawings of the infinite variety of nature and life in the world. One can touch on trying to understand the mind of this genius through his drawings, but he remains enigmatic and mysterious.
Until 13th October. 2019.
Royal Collection Trust
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