Monday, April 30, 2012

Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci's Ultimate Masterpiece, Le Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1501-1519
While the controversy rages over whether or not the Louvre conservation team “overcleaned” Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St Anne, the 500 year old masterpiece still attracts visitors in droves. The unfinished painting itself is, of course sublime: the beauty of St Anne’s skin, the perfection of her gently smiling regard at the baby Jesus, and the energy of the movement across the three figures are magnificent. These aspects, together with the complex and unusual iconography are what keep the world in awe of Leonardo’s creation. That said, the exhibition brings a new perspective when it focuses on the painting’s restoration, its context within Renaissance painting, and its influences throughout art history. What I didn’t realize before seeing the Louvre’s exhibition of The Virgin and Child with St Anne was that the narrative has produced a veritable fest of St Anne’s throughout the history of art. Even before Leonardo’s influential painting, St Anne was a favorite subject for painting.
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Drapery, 1508-10
Leonardo’s painting itself maybe sublime, but what I loved most were his studies and cartoons. Together with the story of its recent restoration, the Louvre has gathered all of the compositional sketches, preparatory drawings, landscape studies, together with the London cartoon, in an effort to demonstrate Leonardo’s working process. If the masterpiece itself is celebrated for its exquisite play of light and shadow, the ethereality and luminescence of the painted figures are already caught long before Leonardo’s brush touched the canvas. The study for the drapery covering the virgin’s legs is about the most magnificent example of Indian ink wash with black and white chalk in the creation of three-dimensional representation I have ever seen. The folds in the fabric are sumptuous, falling more graciously and more gently than they do in their painted version. When I think of the harshness of chalk as a medium, the softness of Virgin’s drapery seems impossible.
Leonardo da Vinci, Ink Study for The Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1508-1510
Similarly, an ink study for the painting is fascinating as we see not only the artist’s thinking along the way to his painted masterpiece, but the drawing and redrawing, the multiple and shifting outlines, the erasure and blurring of the figures and their gestures bring Leonardo, an artist in the process of creating, into the twenty-first century. In this and other of the smaller sketches, Leonardo comes back to life on the centuries old paper, in front of our eyes. In some of the studies we see him exploring the theme, in others the form, or simply the light as it falls on a face.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist
(The Burlington House Cartoon)
c. 1499-1500.

Inevitably Leonardo’s painting was constantly surrounded making it difficult to get up close. Nevertheless, a stroll around the back of the panel constructed for its display revealed an image that was equally if not more breathtaking. The recto side of The Virgin and Child with St Anne is not only beautiful for its tactility and age, but it reveals barely legible studies of a horse's head and other figures in brown ink. Also, next to the Louvre St Anne sits London's “Burlington House Cartoon”, again executed in black and white chalk on eight sheets of paper, and placed within a huge old oak frame. Even though the aged study didn’t glimmer and glisten like the newly restored Louvre St Anne, the Burlington House Cartoon shows, once again, Leonardo at work on the “canvas”. I am no connoisseur of Florentine Renaissance painting, so I won’t comment on the invasiveness of the Louvre St Anne's restoration as many critics have done. But I will say, there is a fragility and a nakedness to the cartoon and other works on paper that invites us directly into Leonardo’s heart. Contrarily, “the vivid, cool colours … the splendid lapis lazuli blues … violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer” of the Louvre St Anne might be admired, but only ever from a distance. 

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