Artist: Leonardo Da Vinci
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A Short Biography of Leonardo da Vinci
Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci is often considered the archetypal "Renaissance man." Over the course of his life, da Vinci developed into a renowned scientist, anatomist, mathematician, inventor, engineer, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, botanist and writer. For our purposes, we will focus on his work as an artist.
The illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl, da Vinci was educated in the studio of the famed Florentine painter, Verrocchio. Much of Leonardo’s early working life was spent in Milan, where he created several of his major works. He also worked in Bologna, Rome and Venice, and spent his final years in a French home given to him by King François I. A man whose curiosity was equaled only by his powers of invention, da Vinci is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person in history.
Despite his varied gifts, Leonardo is best known for his paintings. Due in part to his chronic procrastination and frequent experimentation with new techniques, only fifteen of his paintings survive. Together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, these few seminal works represent an artistic contribution rivaled perhaps only by that of Leonardo’s renowned contemporary, Michelangelo. Two of da Vinci’s works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are simultaneously among the most famous, most reproduced and most parodied paintings of their kind. Da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also iconic.
Facts About Leonardo da Vinci’s Education
In 1466, at the age of fourteen, Leonardo was apprenticed to one of the most successful artists of his time, Andrea di Cione, or Verrocchio. The workshop of this artistic master was located at the cultural and intellectual center of Florence, and offered the young Leonardo an education in the humanities as well as in the arts. Among the painters apprenticed or associated with the workshop were Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.
In a Quattrocento workshop like Verrocchio's, artists were regarded as craftsmen. Only the workshop’s master had social standing. Typical products included decorated tournament shields, christening platters, dowry chests, small portraits, votive plaques, and devotional pictures. Major commissions would have included altarpieces for churches as well as commemorative statues. The largest commissions were large statues and fresco cycles for chapels. Leonardo, as an apprentice, would have been trained in the many skills employed in a workshop of his era: drafting, chemistry, metal working, metallurgy, leather working, plaster casting, mechanics and carpentry in addition to drawing, painting, sculpting and modeling.
Few records exist from this period of Leonardo's life. One is his earliest known drawing, a pen and ink rendering of the Arno valley, dated 5 August 1473. By 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the guild of artists and doctors of medicine, the Guild of St Luke, but even after his father set him up in his own workshop, da Vinci continued to collaborate with Verrocchio.
A Short History of Leonardo da Vinci’s Artwork
Leonardo’s few surviving paintings are famous for certain qualities that have been discussed at great length by connoisseurs and critics and frequently imitated by students of art. The characteristics that make Leonardo’s work unique include the innovative techniques he used in applying paint to canvas; his thorough knowledge of anatomy, botany and geology; his use of the human form in figurative composition; his interest in physiognomy and the human expression of emotion; and his creation of subtly nuanced tones. All of these qualities come together in his most famous painted works: the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks.
Leonardo’s early works begin with the Baptism of Christ, which he and Verrocchio painted together. Two other paintings appear to date from his time at the workshop, both Annunciations. The first is a small "predella" intended to go at the base of a larger composition. The other is much larger. In each piece, Leonardo has used a formal arrangement of the Virgin Mary sitting or kneeling on the right side of the picture, while an angel approaches from the left, with rich flowing garment, raised wings and a lily clasped in his hands. In the smaller picture, Mary averts her eyes and folds her hands in a gesture that symbolizes submission to the will of God. In the larger picture, however, the young Leonardo presents the Virgin Mary acknowledging humanity’s role in God’s incarnation. Previously attributed to Ghirlandaio, the larger work is now generally believed to be one of da Vinci’s.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings of the 1480s
During the 1480s, da Vinci accepted two important commissions and commenced a third work, the composition of which was also of ground-breaking importance. Unfortunately, two of the three were never completed, and the third took so long that it was subject to lengthy negotiations over payment. One of the unfinished paintings is St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Although the painting is barely begun, the unusual composition can be detected. As a penitent, Jerome occupies the center of the picture, set on a slight diagonal and viewed from above. His kneeling form takes on a trapezoid shape, with one arm stretched to the outer edge of the painting and his gaze pointed in the opposite direction. Across the foreground, Leonardo has included a lion whose immense body and tail make a double spiral along the base of the picture. The painting’s other remarkable feature is the rocky landscape against which the figure is silhouetted.
This daring display of figure composition, similar landscape elements, and evidence of personal drama repeat in the second great unfinished masterpiece from this time period, the Adoration of the Magi, The piece is a complex composition for which Leonardo made numerous drawings and preparatory studies, including a detailed linear perspective of the ruined classical architecture which makes up part of the background. But in 1482, Leonardo abandoned the painting when he left Florence for Milan at the behest of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Da Vinci’s third important work of the 1480s is the Virgin of the Rocks, which the Milan-based Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned. The painting, to be completed with the assistance of the de Predis brothers, was intended to fill a large complex altarpiece that had already been constructed. Leonardo chose to paint a scene of John the Baptist meeting the Holy Family on the road to Egypt. In Leonardo’s version of the story, John recognizes Jesus as the Christ, and worships him as such. Leonardo depicts several graceful figures kneeling in adoration around the infant Christ, inscribed against a wild landscape of tumbling rock and whirling water. Two separate copies of the painting were eventually completed, one of which remained at the chapel of the Confraternity and the other of which Leonardo took to France. But the monks did not get their painting, or the de Predis family their payment, until the next century.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings of the 1490s
Leonardo's most famous painting of the 1490s is The Last Supper, also painted in Milan. The piece presents the final meal shared by Jesus and his disciples before his capture and execution, and portrays the moment when Jesus says, "One of you will betray me." Leonardo’s image tells the story of the consternation that Christ’s statement produced among his twelve followers.
Upon its completion, the painting was declared a masterpiece of characterization and design. However, the painting deteriorated so rapidly that within a hundred years, it was nearly ruined. Instead of the reliable technique of fresco, Leonardo had painted tempera over a ground that was mainly gesso, resulting in a surface that was subject to mold and flaking. Still, the painting has remained one of the most reproduced works in history, with copies made in every medium imaginable, from carpets to cameos.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings of the 1500s
One of the works Leonardo created in the 1500s is the small portrait known as the Mona Lisa or "la Gioconda," the laughing one. The painting is renowned in particular for the mysterious smile on the woman’s face. The shadowy quality for which the work is known came to be called "sfumato," or Leonardo’s smoke. Other characteristics of the piece include the subject’s unadorned dress; the unstable landscape background; the subdued coloring; and the extremely smooth nature of the paint technique, with oils laid on much like tempera and blended on the surface so that the brushstrokes are difficult to distinguish. The painting’s perfect state of preservation and lack of signs of repair or over painting are extremely rare to find in a panel painting of this age.
In the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, the composition again includes figures painted against a beautiful landscape. The piece also portrays a figure set at an oblique angle, as in the St. Jerome picture. What differentiates this painting is the two obliquely-set figures superimposed–Mary, seated on the knee of her mother, St. Anne. Mary leans forward to restrain the Christ Child as he plays roughly with a lamb, a symbol of his own impending sacrifice. This painting, which was copied many times, influenced the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto, among others.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Drawings
Da Vinci was not as prolific a painter as he was a draftsman. Throughout his life, Leonardo recorded small sketches and detailed drawings of all manner of objects in his journals. He also sketched numerous studies for paintings, some of which can be identified as preparatory to particular works. Among his best-known drawings are the Vitruvian Man, a study of the proportions of the human body; the Head of an Angel, a study prepared for the Virgin of the Rocks; a botanical study of the Star of Bethlehem; and a large drawing in black chalk on colored paper, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist. This drawing employs the subtle sfumato technique of shading present in the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo’s other famous drawings include numerous studies generally referred to as "caricatures" because they appear to be based upon actual observation of live models. There are many sketches of beautiful young men with the much-admired facial feature of the period, the so-called "Grecian profile." Leonardo often contrasted these faces with those of warriors. Leonardo’s favorite pupil Salai is often depicted in fancy-dress costume. Other meticulous drawings are Leonardo’s studies of drapery.
Legacy of the Art of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo’s genius encompassed many fields outside of painting and drawing, particularly in engineering and inventions. But nearly five hundred years after his death, da Vinci remains best-known for his artwork.
Before Leonardo died on May 2, 1519, at Clos Lucé, France, he reportedly sent for a priest for his final confession and Holy Sacrament. In accordance with his will, he was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. His friend and apprentice Count Francesco Melzi was the principal heir and executor of Leonardo’s estate, receiving in addition to money Leonardo's paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salai and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo's vineyards. His brothers received land, and his serving woman a black cloak of good quality.
Some twenty years after Leonardo's death, King François I of France, who had become a close friend late in da Vinci’s life, reportedly said, "There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo." Half a millennium later, some still believe this statement to be true.
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We hope this short biography of Leonardo da Vinci and information about the drawings and paintings of the original Renaissance Man have provided insight into da Vinci’s life and work. You can browse our selection of drawings and paintings by Leonardo da Vinci from our custom search page. Happy print shopping, and be sure to contact us with any questions.