Leonardo Da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, displays works from what have been proclaimed Leonardo’s most productive years, stretching from 1482 to 1499.  Arriving in Milan at the age of thirty, Leonardo Da Vinci’s talents didn’t go unnoticed and he became the court painter to ruler Ludovico Sforza.  It’s no secret Da Vinci was an extraordinary and gifted polymath, and revolutionary artist.

The National Gallery recently exhibited the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held.  The order in which the exhibits were displayed, really help to tell the story of his work, his thinking, and his promise to deliver emotion and personality to make his paintings come alive.

Love and beauty were central to Renaissance art in Italy, particularly surrounding the portrayal of women, but Leonardo takes this one step further.  In 1489, he painted Ludovico’s sixteen year old mistress and celebrated beauty, Cecilia Gallerani.  Leonardo believed through his painting, he could inspire love in the viewer.

Methodical in his approach, Leonardo drew a detailed sketch of his sitter from every angle in order to achieve an exact three dimensional replica.  He drew countless sketches of every section of the painting perfectly proportionately, before replicating it in scale.

To this end, you can see how he built a section of the painting, for example a limb in stages.  He drew a skeletal arm, showing every muscle and ligament, followed by an exact replica of the arm, painted in the flesh, followed by the same arm in the same position dressed as it is in the painting.

Experts believe it was his desire for perfect human resemblance in his work, that drove him, as often a painting was abandoned, once he had evidently mastered his aim, in replicating the emotion, strain, love, devotion or pain he was aiming for.

It was Leonardo’s study of life and fascination with the human anatomy which he incorporated in his work that made him so unique and ahead of his time.

Seeing his style develop from the strict profile portrait that was fashionable at the time, to how he brought his subjects alive by turning them to engage the viewer, incorporating both eyes in the painting and introducing light and shade is captivating.

Da Vinci had a fascination with eyes, describing them as ‘the window to the soul’.  His philosophy was perfectly complemented by his artistic ability to re-enact emotion and the real personality of his subjects through his work.  Leonardo’s portrait of the wife of a Florentine official, known as the ‘Mona Lisa’, (which hangs in the Louvre in Paris), is famous for its sitter’s enigmatic expression and eyes that ‘follow you around the room.’

One of the most exciting elements of the exhibition for me, was to see and compare Leonardo’s two versions of the picture known as the “Virgin of the Rocks.”  The first was started, in 1483, shortly after he arrived in Milan., after being commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.  It’s believed he began the second version after a dispute over fees which led him to sell the first.  It was installed in 1499, by the time Leonardo had left Milan, and is said to have had a significant impact on art in the city.

Seeing the differences between the two works reveals his changing ideals.  Subtle things, like the inclusion of halos, a cross under the arm of St John the Baptist and the pointed hand of the angel is no longer included in the second piece.  To see these two versions in the same room was my personal highlight of the exhibition.

The final masterpiece, his most celebrated work, is his depiction of ‘The Last Supper’, which he painted for the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan. The painting perfectly illustrates Leonardo’s belief that poses, gestures and facial expressions should reflect the ‘motions of the mind’.

Fascinating Facts about Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

1.He trained in Florence – a gifted painter, musician, polymath and philosopher

2. He was a perfectionist

3. He was easily distracted

4. He rarely finished his work

5. He started very few pictures and finished even fewer

6. In the late 1480s he ran a workshop for gifted students in Milan

7. He was raised in the Tuscan hill-town of Vinci by his paternal grandfather

8. He was an illegitimate child

9. His father was had a flourishing legal practice in Florence, his mother was a peasant.

10. He conceptualised a helicopter, tank, calculator, solar power, the double hull and outlined a rudimentary theory for plate tectonics.