To SAY that Leonardo da Vinci was foremost in time and the equal of any sixteenth century painter, is to say that he was the greatest, for this was a period when no new artist failed to profit by everything which had been done up to date.
This artist was born near Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century (1452). We must therefore concede that he had reached the maturity of his powers long before the opening of the sixteenth century. We cannot, however, point to any decisive revolution in fifteenth century style, owing to his influence or otherwise, before the close of the century. This may be attributed mainly to the very small number of paintings produced of paintings by him before the time of the “Last Supper.” This again would be explained by his versatility of pursuits and occupations as above described, and also by his long and arduous devotion to self-training by technical experiments and technical studies, as distinct from an activity devoted to the production of completed paintings for sale and public inspection.
At present perhaps a dozen pictures or less would cover the number definitely known as his. The wonderful quality of these becomes still more wonderful when we compare the con-temporary and j u s t preceding work. Hard and distinct outline had been the rule alike for fresco and oil painting. Da Vinci was the first to differentiate these arts and to distinguish between the decorative and architectural conditions of the wall-painting, and the possibilities of illusion in oil painting attainable by the use of lights and shadows. He was the first to perceive that forms in nature are rarely seen in hard outlines, but rather in masses of color, and to realize that insistance on the outline in painting must be at the expense of realistic illusion, for we thus become aware that the background is a surface and not a background. In architectural painting it is desirable, how-ever, that the background should appear as a surface; nor did Da Vinci or his followers depart from this point of view in wall-painting, although he employed oil color for the ” Last Supper.” In panel painting, his great art in the modeling of the figure was, however, to present it as merging into the background, and yet as projected from it. The sense of mystery inspired by his handling has such effect on the imagination that we cease to say to ourselves: “This is only a picture.” The picture itself becomes a mysterious reality, something to be considered and thought over, gradually coming nearer to us as we consider it, or re-ceding as we abandon serious contemplation of it. It is, in fact, itself a creation of intellect and of thought.
His most famous oil painting is the portrait of a lady in the Louvre, known as “La Gioconda,” a still world-famous picture, which was purchased for a large sum by the French king, Francis I., during the lifetime of the artist.
In this painting and in the picture of the Virgin and St. Anne in the same Collection, we find a mastery of light and shadow and of modeling which our earlier illustrations of Italian painting have not revealed. The shadows of his pictures as darkened by time, make them, however, difficult subjects for photograph. In oil painting, Da Vinci was undoubtedly the first modern artist who reached complete success.
The type of face which he affected in female subjects has a refined and subtle character. In the “Gioconda” we find it difficult, for instance, to decide whether or no the face be smiling. As regards the number of oil paintings positively ascribed to him, the march of criticism in recent years has more and more tended to reverse previous attributions and assign works to his scholars which bear his name. This is at least a credit to the capacities of his pupils and to his profound influence on Italian painting.
Da Vinci’s epoch-making work was the ” Last Supper,” painted on the wall of the Refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan; and no other wall-painting now remains from his hand.
In the year following its completion (or to be assumed as year of completion, for we only know positively that it was finished before 1499), the artist was driven from Milan by the French invasion, which overthrew the rule of the duke who was his patron and protector. His subsequent career was much disturbed by the complications of Italian politics, and his last years were spent in France, under the protection of the king, Francis I., whose personal friendship he enjoyed. He died at Amboise in 1519.
In the “Last Supper,” Italian painting reached its climax. Although much damaged by flaking off, by repainting of the faces, and other injuries (a door, for instance, was broken through the wall beneath), the picture still has an indescribable effect of mysterious power over the spectator. This is attributable, in the first instance, to its dimensions; the individual figures being nearly double life-size. The fine harmony of color, dramatic power, and psychologic insight into character displayed by varied gesture and expression, the way in which the action cumulates toward the figure of the Savior, the dispersion into groups, each with its own distinct story, are some of the elements contributing to this effect. Nor should we underrate the influence of the subject itself. There is no moment in the story of the Passion of such far-reaching significance, and its portrayal was a fitting subject for the crowning effort of Italian art.
All engravings of this painting fail to suggest its power by virtue of a certain flatness in the outlined effect. In the photograph we realize more clearly the varieties of plane in the grouping of the apostles. Finally, it is apparent, in this picture above all others, how a profound knowledge of human nature must underlie the talent of the hand and eye when a great work of art is in question.
It will most easily define the relations of later Italian painting to Da Vinci, to specify the ages of the great con-temporary artists when this work was finished. Raphael, for instance, was only fifteen years of age and Correggio was but four years old. Michael Angelo was twenty-three years old, Titian was twenty-one years old.
Knowing, as we do, the active rivalry at this time of the Italian artists and their eagerness to learn from one another, it would be clear, simply from this comparison of dates, what Leonardo’s influence must have been. His competition with Michael Angelo five years later for a commission to decorate the Municipal Palace of Florence, shows the rapidity with which the younger artists were pushing forward. The cartoon drawings made for this competition were never executed and were subsequently destroyed.
All that is known of them is by the engravings from fragments known as the ” Battle of the Standard ” by Da Vinci and the “Bathing Soldiers” by Michael Angelo.
To the influence of these cartoons on contemporary art, about and after 1504, is ascribed the final flower of Italian painting.
The personal pupils and followers of Leonardo must be distinguished from the mass of Italian painters, who were ultimately and more indirectly influenced by him. Among the former, Luini is the most distinguished in general reputation as regards close connection with Da Vinci, but the influence of Fra Bartolommeo of Florence was more distinctly powerful as mediating between the great painter and the artists of a contemporaneous but younger generation. On Raphael the influence of Fra Bartolommeo is especially apparent and very generally recognized.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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