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The drawings by Leonardo that are connected directly with his artistic projects form only a small part of the surviving corpus. The remainder were his means of capturing form to record, comprehend and explain the infinite variety of experience, the theme of his whole career; for although Leonardo developed a rich and powerful literary style, he always maintained that an image transmitted knowledge more accurately and more concisely than any amount of verbiage. In Leonardo's drawings, therefore, we can follow a fertility and acuity of intellectual development seldom matched in the history of western thought.
Most of Leonardo's early sheets were little different in function from those of his contemporaries—a mixture of compositional sketches, studies of details for paintings, and drawing exercises. Yet from the first two qualities distinguish Leonardo's drawings, and are of great importance in understanding his works: his range of approach, and his obsessiveness. Leonardo's first datable drawing, a landscape study inscribed with the date 5 August 1473 (Uffizi, P. 253), records an intensely sympathetic response to natural processes; the sheet of profiles, cat. 5, shows observation subordinated to a pattern; by contrast, the studies of the bust of a woman, cat. 3, are completely extemporaneous. The last two drawings also display his obsessive streak, though the occasional impulse to fill a sheet with variations on a theme was sublimated in later life into a concentration on certain intellectual topics, such as the representation of deluges or the functioning of the valves of the heart.
The two principal drawing media ofLeonardo's early years were metalpoint and pen and ink. Metalpoint makes use of the fact that when a metal stylus (usually made of silver) is drawn over the surface of a sheet of paper coated with a preparation of finely ground bone, it leaves an extremely thin layer of the metal which oxidizes immediately to give a dark-grey trace (this is distinct from leadpoint, a broad lead stylus used on untreated paper for underdrawing or coarse sketches). Varying the pressure on the stylus does not change the character of the line, and the mark cannot be erased. As the least capricious and most exacting medium, metalpoint demands control and discipline, and was thus the standard medium for the training of young artists in the studios of fifteenth-century Italy.
In Leonardo's early years he used metalpoint mainly for drawings from the life (cats. 1-3), and the more expressionistic pen and ink for sketches from the imagination (cat. 5). Brush drawing was usually ancillary, to wash in shadows or add white highlights, though a group of drapery studies that are associable with Leonardo and his peers are drawn solely with the brush on linen. The medium used for underdrawing is hard to identify with the naked eye both because of its inherent faintness and because of the rubbing the sheets have endured over the last five hundred years, but microscopic inspection at Windsor has shown that the underdrawing on Leonardo's earlier sheets is predominantly charcoal, not leadpoint.
It is impossible to construct a chronology of Leonardo's metalpoint drawings based on style alone, for their handling hardly evolves over the twenty years that he used the medium; datings must be based instead on motif and technique (see especially cat. 25). Leonardo's early pen-and-ink drawings are much more variable, and during the 1480s demonstrate a gradual taming of his vivaciously crude style, as his use of the pen became increasingly informed by the example of metalpoint. During the same period the distinction between the uses to which he put pen and metalpoint began to blur, and by the late 1480s Leonardo had refined his control of the pen to such a degree that his drawings of the skull (cats. 20-21) display a sensitivity to surface modelling equalling that of his contemporary metalpoint studies of horses (cats. 24-25).
The 1480s also saw the functions of Leonardo's drawings diversify. Some time during the decade he entered the service of Ludovico Sforza, effective ruler of Milan, and for much of the rest of his life he was to earn his living through employment as a court artist, rather than by providing paintings to individual commission. Many of his subsequent drawings were made not for any immediate practical purpose, but as an investigation of form for its own sake or in the pursuit of knowledge in many guises, some of which may seem eccentric or even futile today. Initially he may consciously have emulated the Sienese artist, architect and engineer Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1501/02), who was in Milan at this time. Many of Leonardo's technical and architectural drawings were inspired by a manuscript in his possession that had been compiled by Francesco di Giorgio (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana); Francesco had initiated a treatise on architecture, and at this time Leonardo began to assemble material for a projected treatise on painting, an enterprise that he would never complete.
Around 1492-93 metalpoint was suddenly supplanted in Leonardo's drawings by red and black chalks, which over the next twenty years were to revolutionize draftsmanship in Italy. Black chalk had hitherto been used sporadically by northern Italian artists, especially for head studies, and had been available in Verrocchio's studio while Leonardo was working there in the 1470s. One sheet in red chalk by Leonardo (RL 12568) also appears to date from his early Florentine years, and is one of the earliest red-chalk drawings known. But it was only in the 1490s that Leonardo and other artists began to investigate the potential of chalk for a whole range of graphic effects.
At first, around 1492, Leonardo drew with red chalk in the manner of pen and ink, giving a spidery line that did little justice to the medium, and he used black chalk much as if it were charcoal, primarily for underdrawing. But he soon realised the tonal possibilities of both media, and in the Last Supper studies of the mid-1490s (cats. 29-31) his mastery of chalk is fully displayed. Over the next ten years black chalk was used by Leonardo in every way conceivable: for the most rapid small sketches (cat. 34), for heavily worked compositional studies (RL 12337), for smoky studies of form rubbed and accented with sharp lines (cat. 31), and for intricately modelled drawings using the point of the chalk only (the Budapest Shouting warrior for the Battle of Anghiari, P. 198, and, most probably, the lost presentation drawing of Neptune for Antonio Segni). By contrast, Leonardo soon restricted his use of red chalk to carefully modelled drawings, and rapid sketches such as cat. 36 are most unusual; being paler, red chalk has a narrower tonal range, though Leonardo stretched this to its limits with rubbing, stumping and washing (see cats. 29, 33, 61).
During the 1490s Leonardo began to use technically unnecessary coloured grounds. It was usual to tint the bone preparation of paper for metalpoint drawing, and in his youth Leonardo had employed some vivid orange, blue and purple grounds (cats. 2, 7). But his use of red prepared paper for red-chalk drawings from 1495 (cat. 29) can be ascribed only to an interest in the colouristic effects of the combination, which was to become one of Leonardo's favourite techniques in the following decade, and reached its logical—though sometimes ilegible—conclusion in a group of drawings from the last years of his life executed in black chalk on dark-grey prepared paper (cat. 80).
Although the evidence is slight, it seems that no sooner had Leonardo mastered red and black chalks than he tried to expand the range of colours available by fabricating pastels in other colours. The one drawing in support of this assumption is the portrait of Isabella d'Este (Louvre, P. 172) of 1500, which employs a yellow pastel similar to that used by Clouet, Holbein and other northern portraitists a generation later. Lomazzo (1584) even credited Leonardo with the invention of the medium, though it had been used half a century earlier by French artists such as Fouquet.
This experimentation around 1500 set the tone for the last two decades of Leonardo's career, which were marked by a highly inventive manipulation of all available techniques. The combinations used were intelligent responses to certain pictorial challenges, not experiments for their own sake. Leonardo mixed black, red and occasionally white chalks on a red ground to give a richness to studies of hair (cats. 60, 61) or to atmospheric landscapes. The later drawings for the St Anne (cats. 78-80) are a culmination of the great technical attention that Leonardo had always paid to his drapery studies, which required the representation of both light and texture. Some of these studies, combining up to five media, are the most complex of all his drawings—cat. 78 employs layers of charcoal, black chalk, clear wash, brown wash and white heightening.
The use of black-chalk underdrawing for his scientific studies allowed Leonardo to mould the details into the most accurate configuration before committing himself to a definitive form in pen and ink; and in a number of scientific drawings from the years around 1510 he drew first with red chalk, and then reworked, outlined or refined the drawing with pen and ink. In the case of the water studies (cats. 65, 66) this use of red chalk was a means of achieving depth of structure on a flat sheet of paper. But the striking use of red in the embryological drawings (cat. 71) may be attributable instead to a desire, only partly conscious, to imbue these studies with something of the mystery of living flesh that distinguishes them from much of Leonardo's increasingly mechanistic anatomical work.
The scientific drawings, and particularly the anatomical studies, of Leonardo's later years are marked by a change in approach that mirrors the development of his philosophical system, evident in his notes. Before 1510, Leonardo's method had been to interpret what he saw in the light of what he knew (or what he thought he knew), recording this interpretation; the drawing was the end-product of his reasoning. After that date the drawing usually came first, and was the basis for his investigation of the functions of observed form. Leonardo's greatest skills were as an observer and a recorder, and thus, when his drawings were no longer limited by his imperfect knowledge, he produced some of the most lucid and accurate anatomical illustrations in the history of science (cats. 67-69).
In the very last years of his life, Leonardo purged his drawings of much of their former colour, restricting his materials to black chalk and pen and ink, to the exclusion of red chalk. For a tinted ground he sometimes used a buff wash (cats. 79, 86, 87); occasionally, he would prepare the paper by rubbing black chalk into the surface, or by coating it with dark-grey bodycolour (cat. 80), producing a number of distinctive and somewhat disturbing black-on-black drawings. He used black chalk with greater subtlety than at any other time in his career: no artist ever attained the range of effect that Leonardo wrung out of the medium at the end of his life, in costume designs, equestrian studies and, in particular, depictions of deluges, immense and oppressive on a small scale and among the greatest drawings ever made.
We know from contemporary testimony that Leonardo lost the use of his right hand in his last years, and that he could therefore no longer paint (a two-handed operation); nor, by extension, could he have sculpted or made models. His drawings, made with his sound left hand, thus became the sole outlet for his ingenuity. In a way Leonardo ceased to be an artist. He became instead a visionary, and his last drawings are those visions given as much materiality as the concepts could bear. The costume designs (cats. 88-93) may have been carried out by others, but no cloth could bring into existence the otherworldliness of those figures; indeed by being given a tangible form they would have been diminished, like a dream related after waking.
It is possible to see these last drawings as the logical conclusion of Leonardo's career. Throughout his life he had striven to realise the products of his imagination: occasionally he had succeeded, as in the Mona Lisa or the background of the St Anne; usually he had been thwarted, by events outside his control in the cases of the Battle of Anghiari and the Sforza monument, by his own flight from the extravagance of the Adoration of the Magi. Even the Last Supper, his greatest finished work, was deteriorating within his lifetime, for Leonardo had pushed his materials beyond the limits of their stability in an attempt to capture the effects he desired. Thus we can often grasp the true nature of Leonardo's intentions only through his drawings; and at the end of his life, when he had given up the unequal struggle to give large-scale form to his concepts, his drawings became the pure expression of his genius, boundless and magnificent.
|Abbreviations; A note on provenance||6|
|An outline of Leonardo's life||7|
|The function and technique of Leonardo's drawings||8|
|1452-1481: Vinci and Florence||12|
|1481-1500: Mainly Milan||28|
|1500-1508: Mainly Florence||60|
|1502-1504: Leonardo's maps||89|
|1508-1516: Milan and Rome||106|
|Further reading and Concordance||166|