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?