Leonardo da Vinci: the Greatest?

Nobody “ever achieved the sublimity of Leonardo da Vinci’s’s basic conceptions or the grandeur of his art… He had no equal in the expression of heads, both of men and women; and… in giving grace and movement to his figures [he] surpassed all other painters……” (Vasari)

That was the first art historian’s opinion of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. It seems to have been the opinion of all the critics of his time and maybe still of ours. What is it based on—which works?

A very, very few: the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Annunciation.…an angel in a Verrocchio painting….a Rubens copy of someone’s copy of a battle fresco.

Painting was really just one of Leonardo’s pastimes. He spent his time horsing—tinkering—around. He was always cooking something up, he had a thousand ideas and for some of those he began drawings or models. Rarely did he ever finish anything at all. “I can do all kinds of things,” he wrote to the Duke of Milan in a letter of application for a job, and then listed the varied and surprising fields he felt himself qualified in.

Painting was way down the list. He experimented with colors and tints as though those were a problem as great as the composition of his picture. In that—in the composition—he was supreme but apparently he was not impressed.

You might wonder: but then, what was it really that gave him such a reputation? After all, his notebooks and other scribblings were mostly unknown to his contemporaries.

He seems to have invented and nourished his own myth. The super-genius, the guy who was always surprising with his genialidades, like Salvador Dalí.

But what DID he come up with? And does it really justify Vasari’s rating “the greatest of them all”? Can that be told from a half a dozen, mostly unfinished paintings in bad condition? Is it fair to all the artists who worked hard their whole lives and therefore necessarily created problems and made errors that the man who does nothing avoids?

Leonardo, says Vasari was loved by everyone. King Francis’s called him a great philosopher.

But was he the GREATEST PAINTER? Did he really beat them all for ever and ever? Of course he had a style and a natural grace; but so did Rafael Sanzio, who did not lack impressive powers of invention. He showed those in numerous frescoes and other paintings. And Michelangelo? Was Leonardo’s style as seen in those handful of works really more unique than his? Wasn’t Leonardo’s style as close to his master’s as Rafael’s was to his? Couldn’t it be seen as a carry-over from Verrocchio and Botticelli—the fuzzy sweetness of the Middle Ages, the smile of the Gothic Virgins?

“Grandeur”… “sublimity”…..even “grace”: how can those be measured? What are they? How can Leonardo’s superiority remain though the qualities that support his claim are no longer understood or invoked except by art historians?

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21 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci: the Greatest?

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Good question, Swallows. He was one of the greatest ones, but not THE greatest one, to me. Nice post.

  2. Frank Lin says:

    Leonardo da Vinci, was a great innovator of painting–his genius led to breakthroughs in chiaroscuro, including his development of “sfumato”–all of which influenced the development of Western Art thereafter. True, he didn’t produce much body of work, but at least two of his works, The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper have become icons in our culture to this day…BUT being an artist isn’t about just technical skill hence Leonardo will not rank superior in emotion to Van Gogh, nor in expression to Rembrandt or El Greco…I actually don’t think of Leonardo Da Vinci as a painter per say, he was just so intelligent, he excelled at whichever craft he dabbled in…So he deserves a high standing in the development of painting, though not necessarily a top post in the rank of an artist.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Frank–That’s a good idea of yours to rank artists for certain qualities rather than for their work as a whole: Van Gogh superior in emotion (what he put in or what the viewer feels?,in any case emotion is pretty vague), El Greco in expression (expression is another concept that we’d have trouble agreeing on–don’t you think a work like the St. Teresa by Bernini is very “expressive”? At least it tries to be. Elongating figures (Greco) was a novel way but not necessarily a superior way of giving “expression”–no?).

    By the way, soon I will put in an answer to your last question about Bernini and Michelangelo. Thanks for waiting–I hadn’t forgotten.

  4. ivdanu says:

    I think very courageos and non-conformiste from your part, swallows, to question Da Vinci’s place as a painter. I find fascinating – always did and will – the process of becoming famous…How did Leonardo end up to be one of the most well known artists (and not only) of all times? That would be a really interesting thing to discover, an excellent book subject… The same thing for Van Gogh and Dali, for instance… By the way, Dali was a big admirer of Leonardo, expecially in his maturity and old age times…

  5. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, danu. I’d like to see a study of Leonardo’s reputation too. Don’t you think it has already been done sometime? Dalí mugged and clowned his whole life–that self-promotion was part of his style.

    You know, Vasari himself criticizes Leonardo for so much tinkering, for hardly finishing anything. And since Vasari is such a devoted friend and follower of Michelangelo’s, you wonder if he wasn’t giving an opinion of Leonardo that they shared. Maybe there can be found something of Michelangelo’s dislike for Leonardo: the proud guy with the big reputation who blows his horn but produces nothing while he, Michelangelo, and all the other artists slave their whole lives.

    So it is surprising that Vasari finally says that Leonardo is the best. Vasari himself believes it (which might also have made Michelangelo angry). “The guy’s a clown,” you can almost hear him tell Vasari, “a charlatan.”

    In any case, Leonardo’s legend was already established long before the end of his life. It sure looks like he worked on it himself. Look:
    “The friars, to secure Leonardo’s services, took him into their house and met all his expenses and those of his household [He always lived in grand style, the artist-king]. He kept them waiting a long time without even starting anything [the old performer’s trick of arriving late to build up expectation?], and then finally he did a cartoon [a cartoon, mind you–only the sketch for a painting] showing Our Lady with St. Anne and the Infant Jesus. This work not only won the astonished admiration of all the artists but when finished for two days it attracted to the room where it was exhibited [!] a crowd of men and women, young and old, who flocked there, as if they were attending a great festival, to gaze in amazement at the marvels he had created [how did they know about it? With great fanfare he opened his shop for all to see—his sketch! I bet he put on his genius outfit and handed out “I heart Leonardo” buttons].” from Vasari’s Life of Leonardo.

  6. rich says:

    I just wonder how many of Leonardo’s paintings got lost. Does there some kind of gapless documentation exist about those losses?
    What is overwhelming is the amount of literature that’s been written on this supreme figure. I had one book entitled “Leonardo’s Visions”, describing respective parts of his paintings and his drawings. Plentiful of subjects there were, but the writing style of that scholarly man was just contrary to yours, 100Swallows: i.e. some lime plastering used to fall off the ceiling while reading it, -so dry and barren a treatise it was, a howling desert. I gave it away to the local library where it might join that bulk of Da Vinci books there.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Hi Rich: Vasari mentions the paintings that everyone knows and maybe one or two others–that’s all. He says Leonardo simply rarely finished anything. So I doubt that any of his great works have been lost. There was the famous clay horse that the French soldiers destroyed. That would have been wonderful to see….
    Of course Vasari came to Florence more than a generation after Leonardo had died but he questioned people who had known him and he collected the best stories. What people seem to remember best were not the paintings but the strange toys and machines he made and his other gags such as putting wings on a lizard and painting it up to look like a dragon. He must have been a showman.

  8. rich says:

    He may have been a showman – just one more facet to his genius.

    There’s the “School of Athens” by Raphael. A central figure there is Plato in “the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci”. So I wonder who Leonardo was from a Raphael’s perspective, to deserve such an appreciatation – how did Raphael perceive and remember him?

    I personally adore those eddies he drew, swirling plaits of water, how he studied those invisible currents and caught them so beautifully with his pen.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Which figure in the School of Athens is Plato (Leonardo), rich? My sources say the bald guy with the compass on the right is a portrait of Bramante.
    Ah–must be that bearded fellow standing beside Socrates (snub-nose, counting on his fingers) in the top row. That does look like his self-portrait.
    Now that would be a good story–how the young Rafael coming to Florence from Urbino gets his first glimpse of the legendary old Leonardo, maybe even meets him.

  10. rich says:

    Socrates, counting on his fingers – I had a good laugh on that.
    Just found an explanation that the Leonardo like looking Plato is supposed to gesture upward, pointing his index finger to the aetherial world of his eternal forms, whereas Aristoteles stretches his hand, with this gesture indicating the worldliness and concreteness of his contributions to philosophy.
    Anyway, this School here is quite a Who’s Who.
    There’s Heraclitus in the foreground, the “dark philosopher”, Rafael made him look like Michelangelo.

  11. 100swallows says:

    rich: an American friend of mine took one look at the School of Athens picture and do you know what he said? “What that school needs is desks!”
    Did you see the strange wizard outfit Leonardo is wearing?

  12. rich says:

    He he he, that’s another good one – the missing desks!
    There’s Diogenes portrayed lounging on the stair who seems least to miss one. He is said to have lived in a barrel.

  13. Aryul says:

    I wouldn’t say “best”, but I would definitely say he is by far the most diversely talented artist the world has seen. His sketchbook drawings are godly though…

  14. Aryul says:

    Nevermind…..he is the best.

  15. Eraserheff says:

    Personally I find Leonardo to be the best of the best. Look at the fact that not many forgeries of his work are out there simply because his hand was so fine that it is nearly impossible for someone to copy his work. Above all he was the definiton of a polymath whose work in anatomy and some sciences is still legendary. His sketches rival his paintings in brilliance. He’s created three of the most well known images in all of Western Art: The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Vitruvian Man. No other artist can claim that feat. True painting wasn’t his life long passion but in my opinion it does bring together all of his interests, anatomy, light and darkness, mathematical precision, and so on.

  16. rich says:

    Perhaps time for another quotation from Delacroix’ diary; this time on Leonardo:

    “I’m presently reading “The Life of Leonardo” by Clement.
    The author speaks about several renderings of “The Last Supper” by famous painters who lived before Leonardo – The Last Supper by Giotto, by Ghirlandaio…The first compositions are rather stiff. The persons depicted do neither speak by force of their expression, nor by their movements etc. One master depicts them younger, the other older, but contribute hardly anything to the plot which has little to do with the stupendous diversity that Leonardo put in his masterpiece. If one puts oneself back to the times when this work was achieved, one is simply amazed about the breathtaking progress Leonardo made with his art.
    Almost a contemporary of Ghirlandaio, co-disciple of Lorenzo di Credi and Perugino, whom he had met in Verrochio’s studio, he at once breaks with the traditional painting of the 15th century. Without errors, without slackness, unfailing, without exaggerations and with one single giant step he reaches towards an enlightened and artful naturalism, which is as far from any slavish imitation as it is from an empty and chimeric idealism.
    How strange! The most methodic of all people, who among the masters of his time was the most busy and engrossed with technique, who taught it with such precision so that the works of his best disciples are confused with his own, this man, whose manner and style are characterized in this way, has no rhetoric at all.
    Always faithfully studying nature, always consulting her, he never copies himself. The most sophisticated master of art is at the same time the most naive, and his two rivals, Michelangelo and Raffael, are far from deserving this praise to such an extent.”

  17. Michael says:

    I agree,being a Master isn’t about just technical skill,you must to add vision,imagination,passion,precision and sophistication.
    I recently found that person after trip to Argentina,his name is Gabriel Tomsick.

  18. Pingback: Mona Lisa Watches the Birdie « The Best Artists

  19. iRu says:

    I read some of your posts with great interest, but I find this one disappointing.
    While I can accept and find interesting your approach of offering your very subjective view on different artists, I appreciated your way of pointing out each artists different and specific qualities, which I think this article on da Vinci lacks.

    (quote) “Grandeur”… “sublimity”…..even “grace”: how can those be measured? What are they? (quote)

    You surely must know that it is the very essence that makes great art, which can never be measured or precisely defined. So this statement seems rather misplaced and as such your whole comment about Leonardo remains mere opinion (which is fine, but I think doesn’t do da Vinci justice).

    As to Leonardo: Yes, most every great artists were diligent artists. Still there is no way to measure the quality of their work by its measure. Leonardo’s genius lies in his versatility and innovative mind. He was much like a postmodern concept artist, who’s ideas may be more valuable than the actual work of his hands. Funny though, many people even “inside” art have difficulties accepting such an idea.

    Having said that, Leonardo clearly demonstrated highest artistic skill.

    As for my part, I am not reliant upon art historians to tell me about Leonardos significance. To me he undoubtedly belongs to the very greatest artistic minds in history. He was an uomo universale, an engineer, scientist and inventor, interested in just about everything, but his achievements reached further than mere interest.
    One can dislike such a universal claim or the attitude that may come with it. This is why I dislike Dalí and I find his work rather pretentious than deeply meaningful. But in Leonardos case, the quattrocento had just evolved and he personified the ideal of his time by his comprehensive activities and innovations.
    Yet these achievements do not even need to be mentioned when considering his paintings – they stand for themselves.

    As a painter, he offered a great deal of thought without looking stiff or intellectual – on the contrary: It is the paintings softness and the jovial sentiment they convey, which make them attractive and personally valuable for me. I admire the quality of composition, unique lighting (at the time) and subtleness in expression in his figures.

    Unfortunately I don’t see a balanced consideration of these aspects in your article, which btw doesn’t even mention some of his greatest works like The Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne, John the baptist, The Lady with an Ermine etc.

    • 100swallows says:

      iRu: Thanks for your comment. Sorry the post disappointed you. It was more an inquiry than a statement of my findings. I can’t ever “get” Leonardo; can’t put him together with all the diverse works of his and stories about him. Always a mystery. But I think we agree and appreciate the same things (such as the lack of “stiffness” and “softness and jovial sentiment” of his work).

      Remember, the post was about his reputation as a painter. In our time he is revered not so much for his paintings as for his inventions, which can be more widely appreciated and, especially, talked about. Perhaps it should have been entitled: Never So Few.

      I had picked up Vasari’s distaste for Leonardo’s “horsing around” and inability to finish the projects he started. Vasari censures that same behavior in other artists, like Donatello and Botticelli. It did seem odd that Leonardo should have earned his reputation with such a minute production, especially in an age where reproduction and distribution was at a minimum. That “everyone” in his time should have agreed on the beauty and sublimity of his drawings and cartoons, I couldn’t believe. So I wondered whether, like Salvador Dalí, he was a genius at blowing his own horn. (I didn’t mean to compare the work of those two artists, I agree with you about Dali’s.)

      Now, after re-reading Vasari’s biography, I see that he actually shows great understanding for Leonardo’s struggle with his numerous talents or vocations and goes very far in praising his work—perhaps as far as he could allow himself as a friend of Michelangelo, who would read the Life of his enemy. After all, Vasari went “all the way” in his Life of Raphael: “Raphael never achieved the sublimity of Leonardo’s basic conceptions or the grandeur of his art. In this context, however, where few can stand comparison with Leonardo, Raphael came nearer to him than any other painter, notably in grace of coloring…” “Any other painter” (sorry, Michelangelo?).
      “Ah, but I’m a sculptor.”

      On the other hand, I was struck by the hypocrisy of modern art critics who follow tradition to evaluate Leonardo’s work. Of course for their own models of excellence, the Warhols and Johnses and Motherwells et al. they don’t use terms like “sublime”, “beautiful”, “graceful” and “great”. Those terms and those criteria have fallen into disuse altogether except for the Old Masters. Aesthetics itself has long been left on the shelf. “Natural,” the critics would say. “Today’s art is about other things. Another age measured beauty and grace, not ours.” Are they versed in the concepts any more? Let them tell us about Leonardo’s paintings with their working vocabulary and let us see.

  20. iRu says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    It was good to think about Leonardo again. Fascinating figure and work.

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