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Art review: 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan'

The unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery in London shows the artist's ability to make art seem so real.

November 20, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine), about 1489-90. Oil on walnut.
A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The… (National Gallery, National…)

From London — — In the second room of "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," a moving and unprecedented exhibition at the National Gallery, what some regard as the most beautiful portrait in the long history of European art draws a viewer in close. "Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady With an Ermine)" shows the radiantly lovely, 16-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, despotic ruler of Milan and the artist's boss. She stares into an unseen distance while gently stroking the soft neck of an alert, snow-white ermine cradled in her arms.

Her torso twists in three-quarter view turned to her right, while her head is in three-quarter view turned to her left. It's as if the young lady was passing by, heard something behind her and stopped to look. The static image rustles with implied motion, a flat image visually swollen with spatial volume.

Uncannily, the painting also reflects a viewer's own encounter with it, unable to walk by without stopping to stare. You, art and the world converge.

Whether the gorgeous portrait merits the accolade as most beautiful ever is unprovable, yet the claim signals Leonardo's extraordinary achievement. His artistic goal was a back-breaker — to make you fall in love with paint and wood, as surely as Sforza loved beautiful Cecilia. Rather than merely describe the complexity of human experience, this art physically embodies it. Therein lies Leonardo da Vinci's aesthetic genius, as well as his stature as a watershed for Western art.

It doesn't stop there either. The ermine symbolizes Sforza, whose membership in the aristocratic Order of the Ermine cements him to his plebeian beloved. Yet for all the graceful animal's closely observed naturalism, this painted creature is a fiction — far larger than an ermine found in nature. No, Leonardo didn't err. Art has its own demands, and the beast's size fits his composition's needs. The artist makes you believe in its truth.

Leonardo's greatness lies in his capacity to create belief in the fiction you see. Endless nonsense gets written analyzing his various sitters' psychology — think "Mona Lisa" — as if such a thing were possible. But really it's belief and love that animate his art.

Or, to use different words with the same meanings, faith and charity do. Faith and charity are primary Christian virtues, a profound assertion of spiritual theology. Leonardo's paintings reach for the ineffable, the sum of individual elements far exceeding the parts. The earthly balances on a knife-edge with the unearthly, creating sacred harmony.

Painter, engineer, geologist, musician, philosopher, equestrian, botanist, mathematician, inventor — Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) suffered a vexing problem, not uncommon for an ambitious polymath. Simply put: Distractions, distractions.

So prone to becoming absorbed in new challenges was he, and so determined to follow wherever his fascinated insights might lead, that in nearly half a century Leonardo began work on a total of only about 20 paintings. Picasso made that many in a month. And unlike the Renaissance Italian, the modern Spaniard almost always finished the ones that he started.

Today, only about 14 paintings entirely by Leonardo are known to exist. Four were never finished. Fate and the difficulty of attribution — the artist neither signed nor rigorously inventoried his work — mean the total number is slightly uncertain. They range from a diminutive portrait, barely 14 inches on a side, of the young Florentine Ginevra de' Benci, to the famously ruined mural for a convent in Milan. In "The Last Supper," Jesus has quietly announced that one disciple will betray him — an epic breach of faith and charity.

The rarity and fragility of Leonardo's immensely influential paintings has led to an unusual result. Despite his authorship of the enigmatic "Mona Lisa," arguably the most widely recognized painting in the world, his paintings have never before been the subject of a museum exhibition. Adjectives like "major" barely do justice to this astonishing show.

Luke Syson, curator at London's National Gallery, spent five years assembling nine paintings — almost everything Leonardo produced in Milan — plus 54 related drawings and 13 more paintings and 12 drawings by seven students and associates. The curator's readable catalog essay is a model of scholarship elegantly fused with engaging insight for a layman.

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