Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the Court of Milan

London, National Gallery, from 9 November 2011 to 5 February 2012.

Nicholas Penny had announced there would be no more blockbuster exhibitions. The one now highlighting Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is thus a bit paradoxical as one would be hard put to imagine a restrospective drawing larger crowds than this. To remedy this, the museum has wisely decided to stagger visitor entrances and we strongly recommend anyone wishing to see it, not to wait too long before going. Reservations are already full until at least mid-December and although it is always possible to purchase tickets on the same day, they are few in number, making it impossible for everyone to enter.

The exhibition is well worth the wait. Not only does it bring together several famous paintings, there is also much to be learned and the hang is well thought out. However, the average visitor with little background knowledge of the subject might miss the sense of the latter. The blending of Leonardo’s original works with those of his contemporaries and students is quite pertinent as it allows us to understand the radical innovation in his art as well as the evolution in style and the influence on his followers. It also encourages us to wonder about questions of attribution (and these are complex, as we shall see further on) while at the same time, making it hard to understand the exhibition for those who have not read the catalogue or spoken to the curators, especially since the panels provide little explanation.

1. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician), 1486/87
Oil on panel - 44.7 x 32 cm
Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Photo : Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

2. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (circa 1467-1516)
still recently attributed to
Ambrogio de Predis (circa 1455-1510)
Portrait of a Young Man, 1490/91
Oil on panel - 38.9 x 37.4 cm
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
Photo : Pinacoteca di Brera

In the first room, two male portraits appear almost side by side, one by Leonardo (ill. 1), the other by his collaborator and student Boltraffio (ill. 2), creating a troubling presence. First off, because Leonardo’s already shows the hand of an accomplished master : the artist, trained in Verrochio’s workshop is no beginner. The exhibition is not a complete retrospective since it covers only the Milanese period, that is twenty years in the career of a painter who died at 67. Also because this panel by Leonardo is unfinished, a fact not pointed out to visitors (only the head is more or less completed). Finally, because the attributions written on the signs are much too assertive, leaving no room for doubt when in fact they are in no way unanimously accepted. This can only be understood after reading the catalogue and reflects a practice, frequent in art history, which presents a theory as a fact, and is damaging to our discipline.

Thus, the Portrait of a Young Man by Boltraffio which was considered to be by Ambrogio de Predis until 2010, and as such a new attribution is shown without any hesitation. True, the explanations are convincing : the only acknowledged portraits by Ambrogio de Predis, in profile, are very different and not as well executed. The possibility of a Boltraffio attribution seems pertinent, as the comparisons offered here with other works are totally persuasive. But how are we to interpret the conclusion on the entry ? "The painting stylistically and emotionally closest to the present portrait is the Madonna Litta : the light effects and pewter skin tones are comparable, and the Christ Child has the same soft, fine reddish hair as the young man. The two paintings must surely be by the same hand, that of Boltraffio [...]" This would all be perfectly reasonable if the Madonna Litta from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (ill. 3) were not presented in the exhibition under the name of... Leonardo, without in any way questioning the attribution in either the sign or the entry.

3. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
or more probably
Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (circa 1467-1516)
The Madonne Litta, 1491/95
Tempera on panel transferred on canvas - 42 x 33 cm
St Petersburg, The State Hermitage
Photo : The State Hermitage

4. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (circa 1467-1516)
Study for the Head of the Christ Child, 1490/91
Metalpoint heightened with white - 16.6 x 14 cm
Paris, Fondation Custodia
Photo : Fondation Custodia

In our opinion, the Boltraffio drawings (ill. 4) exhibited next to the Madonna Litta, have convinced us that it is indeed by this artist. But the entry for the painting, written by Tatiana Kustodieva, a curator at the Hermitage, attributes it "undoubtedly" to Leonardo, as opposed to the affirmations of the other authors in the catalogue. One too easily jumps of course to the conclusion that the only way this painting was in fact lent for the exhibition was on condition that the sign explicitly state Leonardo’s name. Although this is understandable (yet still not acceptable) in the case of a private collection, such practices are unworthy of a museum and such an agreement should be systematically rejected, even if it means depriving the exhibition of an important work and then openly giving the reasons for this decision. In any case, this example throws a shadow on the scholarly aspect of the exhibition. The fact that several authors in the same catalogue express differing opinions regarding certain works is not at all surprising. But, in that case, visitors should be made aware of it and the catalogue is supposed to balance these differences in the entries by pointing out the fact there exists a debate on the subject.

5. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483/circa 1485
Oil on panel transferred on canvas - 199 x 122 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

6. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1491/99 and 1506/08
Oil on panel - 189.5 x 120 cm
London, The National Gallery
Photo : London, The National Gallery

The large room here, with the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, that of the Louvre (ill. 5), and the one from the National Gallery (ill. 6), recently restored (see news item of 14/7/10) is undoubtedly a great moment, which might have been even more so if the works had been placed side by side instead of across from each other ; but the flow of visitors made this impossible.
Interesting as it may be, we must of course consider whether the loan by the Louvre was a wise choice. It was transferred from a panel to the current canvas many years ago and it is well known that paintings which have undergone this process are very fragile, usually making travel out of the question, and in fact systematically refused by the Parisian museum until recently. Obviously, this is no longer the case. We cannot help but wonder if this was the price to pay in order to obtain the cartoon for Saint Ann which is coming to Paris next spring...
The comparison of the two works indeed confirms that they show major differences due to various factors, not only their respective states. The one from the British museum is often considered as being produced by the workshop but the entry suggests this might also be an acknowledged version by the master himself. The more massive figures, the lighter and colder colors help us to better understand Boltraffio’s style, which the exhibition demonstrates undoubtedly corresponds to Leonardo’s best student. His metalpoint drawings can be considered almost on a par with those of his master.

7. Associate of Leonardo da Vinci
(Francesco Napoletano ?)
An Angel with a Vielle, 1490/99
Oil on panel - 117.2 x 68 cm
London, The National Gallery
Photo : London, The National Gallery

In the same room, visitors will also see the two angels with instruments which used to be on either side of the London Virgin of the Rocks in the altarpiece at the church of San Francesco. One is acknowledged as being by Ambrogio de Predis, the other (ill. 7) is, cautiously for once, only attributed to an "Associate of Leonardo da Vinci", perhaps Francesco Napoletano, and in any case is probably by the same hand which produced the Virgin and Child, or Madonna Lia, shown alongside it and "attributed to" this still unfamiliar painter. We would have liked to know more concerning this last work, today held at the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco in Milan and which we are told here was in France in the early 1980’s. Alas, the catalogue, with an excellent presentation (good reproductions, essays and entries), never provides any information on ownership or historical background.

8. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Salvator Mundi, circa 1499
Oil on panel - 65.5 x 45.1 cm
Private collection
Photo : Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Returning to the subject of attributions, we cannot overlook the questions regarding the attribution of the Salvator Mundi (ill. 8) which recently resurfaced and which most specialists now seem to accept. Given the photographs we were able to see, we must admit we were a bit skeptical. Most of the paintings presented to us as being by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio (or more recently Rembrandt) and which have been "rediscovered" are simply copies, works by a follower or even sometimes have absolutely no connection to the artists in question.
When looking directly at the panel, however we were definitely convinced of the authorship. The quality of those areas in better condition (the work, when seen without the many repainted parts, is unfortunately partly ruined) is good enough to be that of an original. The arguments presented in the entry are also convincing. And the general impression of the image is incredibly powerful.

Finally, we would like to point out that the exhibition concludes in the museum rooms with a fine old copy, by Giampietrino, of The Last Supper which obviously cannot be moved, accompanied by several preparatory drawings.

It is easy to think that questions of attribution are the domain of a few specialists only [1]. However, they are far from being anodyne. How can one know and understand a painter when studied in paintings which are not his ?
But let us set aside this caveat for the moment since this exhibition with its rare faults is nevertheless undeniably successful thanks, among other things to the quality of the hang, as is often the case in this museum. Whichever the artist, the works on display are almost all of remarkable quality. Seeing the Lady with an Ermine from Cracow and the Portrait of Woman (The Belle Ferronnière) from the Louvre (another painting which is also, strangely enough, a source of much debate) side by side is an unforgettable experience. Being able to admire all these sheets by Leonardo and Boltraffio, compare the paintings to their preparatory drawings is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Curators : Luke Syson and Larry Keith.

Collective work, Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the court of Milan, 2011, National Gallery Company, 320 pp., 25£. ISBN : 9781857094909.

Visitor information : The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. Tel : +44 (0) 20 7747 2885. Open every day from 10am to 6pm, Sundays until 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays until 10pm. To book a visit or purchase tickets, see the National Gallery website.

French version

Didier Rykner, dimanche 13 novembre 2011


[1] The exhibition also offers the Madonna of the Yarnwinder which had been stolen then recovered (see the news item of 5/10/07), another very controversial attribution. It is presented as being by Leonardo, who appears to have painted the figures, and an anonymous 16th century painter who seems to have finished the work, left incomplete, by executing the landscape.

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