For ten years, the Louvre curators prepared an exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death. The result was one of the greatest exhibitions of the Louvre in living memory.
The Burlington Cartoon, that came from London's National Gallery to the Louvre's Leonardo da Vinci 500th anniversary exhibition.
The number of Leonardo da Vinci paintings is only about fifteen, as few paintings are widely acknowledged as having been painted by Leonardo's own hand, while others are questioned as if the work was done by the master, by his assistants, or are mere copies. To illustrate the point, one just has to consider the astonishing jump in value of Salvator Mundi, first thought to be a copy or the work of one of Leonardo's assistants, to then sold at auction for a record sum as being solely by Leonardo's own hand.
Of course none of the Leonardo da Vinci paintings are signed. In our modern idea of 'art', the artist paints whatever he wants and adds his name to the finished result. This would have been unthinkable at a time when images were commissioned to decorate churches or palaces.
The rare exception to the rule was when artists added their self portraits, or Michelangelo carving his name on his marble Pietà. And since Leonardo was so influential, there are many paintings that look like they might be by him, but are in fact mere copies.
Leonardo spent his last three years in France working at the court of King Francis I in comfortable setting. Legend has it that he expired in the King's arms, but in any case, Leonardo dropped his pen for good in 1519.
Ten years ago the curators of the Louvre set out to organise an exhibition worthy of the 500th anniversary. The result is a major exhibition, likely the last opportunity in our own lifetimes to see so many wonders by Leonardo in one room.
The presentation is excellent, made accessible with by avoiding the traditional chronological list and instead giving themes, the viewer gets to understand Leonardo as a master of light and shade, and how his drawings of painting studies became constantly reworked, at the risk of leaving the painting unfinished.
With Science, an incredible concentration of sketches and notebooks, superbly presented so the public can get close and see, in each page, a reflection of Leonardo's mind : mathematics, architecture, the flight of birds, anatomy, engineering, optics, astronomy... A reminder that Leonardo was a great mind, attached to a great hand.
Backlit infrared images of the absent paintings are presented, proving a great help to make sense of Leonardo's career and the drawings studies displayed.
The first Leonardo painting we see came from Saint Petersburg, the Benois Madonna. Already, while Leonardo was in early thirties, he depicted the Virgin Mary smiling lovingly at her son, a trait that will become obvious with the rest of the exhibition.
With Saint Jerome, the unfinished state of the painting helps the viewer understand the sfumato technique of applying transparent greys repeatedly until they become darker, resulting in astonishingly smooth transitions between light and shade. And the exhibition is of great scholarly interest, delighting Leonardo admirers with a contemporary copy of the Last Supper giving the best idea of the state of the painting as it was 500 years ago.
Then with documents illustrating what possibly was the greatest artistic contest ever staged, when Leonardo and Michelangelo were in the same room, tasked to paint opposite walls of Florence city hall. Both geniuses capitulated and the paintings are only faint memories, all the major documents about the Anghiari and Cascina battles are present. With the two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the difficult question of guessing what is painted by Leonardo, and what is by his assistants can be played by the visitors. For the lost Leda, the curators got the best copy in existence along with the sketches.
So visiting the Louvre Leonardo exhibition allows to virtually travel to Milan circa 1490 and Florence circa 1500. From Parma a rarely seen Leonardo treasure, the Scapigliata, a marvellous painted study of a smiling dishevelled woman. By that stage we're already getting close to two-third of all Leonardo paintings in one place.
And to top it all, the best is left last, with the two Sainte Annes, the Louvre painting and Burlington cartoon from the National Gallery of London. To give an idea of the rarity of the cartoon -a preparatory sketch for a painting-, there are only two Leonardo cartoons left, and both are present. The Sainte Anne cartoon is in fact described in Leonardo's biography as having "stupefied the entire populace".
If this cartoon could stupefy Renaissance Florence, one must imagine the effect having both the cartoon and the finished result, the Louvre Sainte Anne, in the same room. Between early sketches and the painting, Saint Anne represents twenty years of work.
Now something curators might not realise, is that the painting of Sainte Anne is the only artwork of the Louvre that readily brings tears to visitors. Taking the time to let viewers admire this masterpiece, asking them to see the eye exchanges between grandmother, mother and child, the stunning depiction of a universal language, love, often leads in tears streaming down cheeks. But for this effect to happen, one must take the time to look and take in such a masterpiece.
At Art Journey we are extremely proud to have been in the situation of bringing a lady to see the Burlington cartoon, after she had spent 45 years looking at a poster of it on her wall, and waited all this time to see the real thing. First in the morning, we went straight to see it, and a stream of emotional tears flowed. Along with managing to keep an eight year old attention for six hours, getting that kind of response in front of an artwork is one of the joys art historians get when sharing their passion for art with visitors.
The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition was held from 24th of October 2019 till the 24th of February 2020. It set the all time record for visitors of a Louvre exhibition, with 1,071,840 visitors, double the previous record. It also, in terms of art history and quality, was one of the best exhibitions of the Louvre in recent memory.