Go See – London: ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ at the National Gallery through February 5, 2012

December 20th, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome (circa 1482). Image via the Vatican Museum.

The National Gallery‘s Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan brings together the most comprehensive display of surviving paintings and drawings by the artist to date, as only a small number of da Vinci’s works remain accounted for. While da Vinci’s interests included painting and sculpture, anatomy, engineering, and music, the National Gallery defines the scope of the show to drawings and paintings dated primarily within the 1480s and 1490s—the period in which da Vinci was the court painter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani: Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490). Image via the Czartoryski Museum.

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child (‘Madonna Litta’) (circa 1491-1495). Image via The State Hermitage Museum.

During this period da Vinci painted the Virgin of the Rocks, originally intended for the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. A subsequent dispute resulted in its sale, and a second version was created consequently. The earlier depiction now belongs to the Louvre, while the second is owned by London’s National Gallery. The recent restoration of the later Virgin of the Rocks partially inspired the exhibition, and the paintings are on display together for the first time.

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486). Image via the Musee de Louvre.

Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (circa 1506-1508). Image via The National Gallery.

Although the two representations appear remarkably similar, the later London version exemplifies a seemingly more mature style and artistic complexity. Da Vinci also added halos and John’s cruciform stick to the second edition in an attempt to further identify the religious figures, though some scholars argue that these elements were painted in by a later artist and not da Vinci.

Also exhibited is a portrait of Duke Ludovico’s mistress, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani: Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490) (seen at top). Da Vinci was one of the first artists to use oil paints, and this work exemplifies his mastery of the new medium. While Stoats symbolize purity, here, the animal takes on a double significance: Ludovico was a part of the Order of the Ermine.

The paintings are accompanied by da Vinci’s preliminary drawings and sketches, which illuminate the intention and process behind each painting. A Kneeling Angel (circa 1480–1484) is a drawing of an angel in motion with the angel’s arm shown in two positions, representing the moment between thought and expression.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Kneeling Angel (circa 1480-1484). Image via the British Museum.

While da Vinci’s gift has long been studied and celebrated, Painter at the Court of Milan provides the rare opportunity to view many of his surviving paintings together. The exhibition enables visitors not only to study individual images, but also to understand his abilities within the greater context of his artistic oeuvre.

– G. Linden

Related Links:

The National Gallery [Exhibition Site]
Art Review: ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ [Los Angeles Times]
Long Lines and Scalpers: Rock Star? No, Leonardo [The New York Times]
Leonardo da Vinci, at National Gallery, Seven Magazine Review [The Telegraph]
Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan – Review [The Observer]