Art In History Art Blog
The decision to include Leonardo is not based on the impact of the work on me viscerally and emotionally; in fact, on one level you could say he is not a "favorite" artist at all. It is more that I stand in awe of what he accomplished as an artist, while so much of his energies and imagination were focussed on other things. And of course, after a piece on Michelangelo, it is only proper to give Leonardo equal time.
Michelangelo and Leonardo were the towering figures of the Renaissance until the younger Raphael rose to join them, great rivals, driving each other to greater heights. While Michelangelo yielded to no one in the ambitiousness of his schemes, he was always most comfortable with his chisel and stone; Leonardo, on the other hand, mocked his rival for getting covered with marble dust. For him, art was in the invention; the rest was "just craft", an idea which has had enormous influence in western art since Leonardo first posited it.
Leonardo's genius was to really invent something new, each time he put his mind to a problem, whether in art or technology. We are amazed to find that he seems to have thought of most of the great mechanical inventions of the next 500 years, such as the airplane and helicopter, but his invention was as remarkalbe in the field of art. In the "Madonna and Child with Ste. Anne" we see the invention of the pyramidal composition of figures which Raphael was later to elaborate and perfect in the High Renaissance. It is fascinating to see him work it out between the sketch and the final version, essentially completing the "invention". After this he would turn to something else; once the idea was fully realized, why repeat it?
The "Mona Lisa" shows a very different invention, in atmosphere rather than composition. The "Sfumato" (smokiness) which envelops the figure is something totally new, radically unlike the clarity of Renaissance painting in general. In subordinating color and form to light and atmosphere, Leonardo is anticipating Rembrandt. An artist who had just one of these inventions to his credit would be considered great.
It is remarkable that Leonardo could have achieved so much as an artist when so much of his energy was devoted to the wider exploration of the world and its possibilities. Even his art itself often seems to be in service of his voracious curiosity, as in his muscular study. I don't think we have seen his equal in intellect until Einstein.