2019 marks five hundred years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance artist responsible for masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. To commemorate the anniversary of his death, the Walker Art Gallery is one of twelve galleries in the UK taking part in Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, a nationwide event displaying Da Vinci’s drawings.
The exhibition covers a number of Leonardo’s subjects, from animals (Studies of a Horse) and portraiture (The Head of Leda) to studies of plants (Sprigs of Oak and Dyer’s Greenweed) and fabrics (The Drapery of the Madonna’s Thigh).
The precision and detail Leonardo applied to drawings that he may never have thought others would see is extraordinary. One drawing, A River Landscape, is so small there is a digitally enlarged version beside it on the wall. Yet despite working on such a small canvas, around the size of a postcard, Leonardo still manages to create something really worth taking the time to look at closely – you can see the cattle on the boats and what seems to be a man riding on the back of an animal, things that could easily be missed upon first glance. The Drapery of Madonna’s Thigh, which was a study in preparation for his painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, provides a similar example of Leonardo’s precision and technical skill. From a distance, the material looks like an effortless creation, but upon closer inspection the viewer can see the artist’s hand at work – the charcoal creating a crease in the fabric, the white chalk bringing light to the drawing. We are given an insight into Leonardo’s creative process and the diligence with which he worked.
The exhibition is more than simply just a showcase of Leonardo’s drawings from various stages of his life – it also provides an unmissable glimpse into paintings that are either lost or never came to fruition. One such piece is titled ‘A Rearing Horse, and Heads of Horses, A Lion and A Man’. This study is preparation for a larger painting, The Battle of Anghiari, now lost (but believed to be hidden under a fresco in the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio, a Florence town hall). The tormented and exhausted expressions on the faces of the horses suggest that the final version of this work would likely have been chaotic, depicting the horrors of the battle it would have portrayed. It is unsettling to say the least.
From this exhibition, there comes across a sense that Leonardo did not draw simply to prepare for a painting or larger project. It was his way of life, how he made sense of things. A work on display at the half way point of the exhibition provides an excellent example of this, showing diagrams of back and shoulder muscles, with Leonardo’s accompanying notes offering detailed insights into his understanding of what he had drawn.
The final two drawings in the exhibition, The Head of a Youth and Apocalyptic Scenes provide a fitting contrast with which to end the viewing experience. The former piece has a slight airiness to it, the faint marks of the pencil adding an element of delicacy to the work. Apocalyptic Scenes, on the other hand, is much more urgent, with the lines closely cramped together and the shading much darker, creating a feeling of finality. Placing an image of a youth followed by an image of Leonardo’s visualisation of the apocalypse evokes an understanding of a beginning and an end, symbolising the journey the viewer has just taken through Leonardo’s life through his drawings, from his early days as an artist to his final years.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is at the Walker Art Gallery until 6th May. Free entry.
Featured image credit: National Museums Liverpool