Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Genius of Leonardo Da Vinci

by Katherine Tobin

After a visit to the National Portrait Gallery to see the much anticipated Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, I was inspired to look into his most famous artworks and also at those which, although less well-known, were, I felt, equally significant.

Arriving at the gallery, I had a good idea, being an art student myself, of many of his paintings. Although I knew that the famous 'Mona Lisa' would not be at the gallery, I was aware that Da Vinci was very well known for his incredibly accurate paintings, such as the two almost identical 'Virgin on the Rocks', which were being exhibited together for the first time.

These paintings did not disappoint – the shading, colours and attention to detail were frankly unbelievable.  But coming away from the exhibition, it was not these impressive paintings that held in my mind.  It was, instead, the hundreds of small but very detailed sketches that Leonardo had made over the course of his time as an artist.  Although these did not have the grandeur of the paintings, nor the polished finish, these sketches were, for me, the most inspiring.

Having spent a good three hours in the gallery, I was surprised to discover that the sketches, which beforehand I was unaware of, covered around two thirds of the content there.  Some are well known, such as his “Proportions of the Human Figure” and his detailed areas of “The Last Supper” which were later encompassed in the painting.  But, even now, I struggle to find many well known sketches of his that are as famous and as widely recognised as his paintings.

This is a little bit of a shame for me – I find that the sketches often have a character where the paintings do not, and show a remarkable level of skill considering they were not to become a grand piece, like many of his paintings. I wonder, especially in the sketches where he was practising for a painting, whether he simply became bored of the painting itself from his incessant sketching of it.  Or maybe he simply preferred casual sketching rather than working for years on a single piece, such as 'St Jerome', which remains unfinished.

In any case, his sketches were skilled and accurate, and covered a surprisingly large range of topics: from plants to the anatomy of the human body.  He seemed to take a particular interest in the latter, where his sketches of the nervous system, skull and brain, embryo in the uterus and many more, show an inquisitorial side of Da Vinci which branches out from art showing also a keen interest in science.  The non-existence of photographic technology meant that drawing was the main source of information at that time, and Da Vinci was one of the key artists to really influence the medical world.  He used new methods such as dissection to accurately document how the human body worked.  These are some of his more well-known sketches and he was applauded for his contribution to modern science.

Leonardo also took an interest in animals, especially horses, where he made a great number of sketches outlining the muscles and proportions of their bodies.  I know the difficulty of drawing horses from personal experience, and was amazed to see how well he had captured the horse’s characteristics and movement.  Many of these sketches accompanied others on the same page, showing a brilliant but perhaps wandering mind.

Study for the head of Leda
(source: www.drawingsofleonardo.org)
One of my personal favourites is a set of studies of a woman’s hair.  The multiple angles and positions of the sketches show how Da Vinci continued to work in a precise, detailed way, despite the pictures being sketches. What I like is that he is able to capture the woman in the moment of time; she seems thoughtful and peaceful and he conveys this well.

I was really inspired by these sketches – I am now a proud owner of one of many of the books from the gallery’s shop recording his works and I enjoy looking through them.

I would love to go and see Da Vinci’s works again, and, if anything, I would like to have thought that I have encouraged you to not only take a look at Da Vinci’s sketches, but also to look beyond the famous pieces of artists and to their other works, which may, as in my case with Leonardo, inspire you more.

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