There are few people who live in this world or who have lived, who are called “rare”. For sure, one of these is Leonardo da Vinci. Born in 1452, in Tuscany, da Vinci was a Renaissance artist. With fervor, he tested his own limits in his own technique and other artistic traditions. He had one of the brightest minds in history, creating unique works, examining human anatomy and constantly learning new concepts. Da Vinci had a questioning attitude, always yearning for an accurate representation of the human figure in his work.
After his death in 1519, he became a profound influence on his successors, and left many notebooks of his sketches, findings, and poetry. Artworks by da Vinci include mainly paintings, but also designs and sculpture. He was an accomplished scientist, architect and inventor. Leonardo da Vinci was the best example of a man in whom both hemispheres of the brain worked together to create a complete human.
Here are 8 of da Vinci’s famous artworks to give you a better understanding of the epic work he did.
Mona Lisa (c.1503-19)
The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous artwork by Leonardo da Vinci. It attracts visitors in the thousands to the Louvre Museum, Paris, every day of the year. Many are drawn to the subject’s enigmatic gaze and sublime smile. At first glance, the painting looks quite ordinary, with a simple woman dressed quite modestly. The entire painting is executed in somber colors. Viewers often wonder why so much fuss is created over it. To the trained eye, the painting is the epitome of realism and da Vinci’s talent. The woman’s face has a soft quality to it. Da Vinci used the technique of sfumato here, to perfection. Sfumato is an artistic technique in which gradations of light and shadow are used to denote form and shape. Normally, lines are used to depict forms and boundaries. This isn’t so with sfumato.
You can see da Vinci’s artwork at its specific best in the Mona Lisa. This is an oil painting done on a panel of wood. The lady’s delicate hair, the tireless painstaking rendering of folds in the cloth, and the face itself show the painter’s patience in understanding his craft. The subject’s smile has been the topic of heated debates. Some say that she is smiling engagingly, while some swear she has an expression of mockery.
The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-86)
The Virgin of the Rocks is considered, by most art experts, to be one of the initial two artworks depicting the Holy Family‘s legendary meeting with John the Baptist. This takes place when the Holy Family are fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of infants. The original painting caused a dispute with the Fraternity of the Immaculate Conception, the body that commissioned the work. In 1508, da Vinci was forced to create another version of the famed work. Now, it is housed at the National Gallery of Art in London.
The original work is at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It is an oil painting done on wood. Many of Leonardo’s artworks were done in this manner. Much in contrast with the painters of the High Renaissance who showed exalted versions of Mary, da Vinci’s Mary is youthful and seated on the ground. She is shown tilting her head in a protective way towards an infant John. She seems to be moving, implying that she is compelling the baby Jesus to bless John. The figures are realistic, rather than ethereal.
Last Supper (c.1495-98)
The Last Supper is one of the most well-known artworks by da Vinci. It is a wall painting and is currently housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It was restored in 1999. The painting was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the then Duke of Milan. He was da Vinci’s patron. The work was to be placed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, a Dominican monastery. The painting hails as the most intriguing study of human emotion, portrayed in the simplest of ways.
The exquisite execution of this classic among da Vinci’s artwork tells of events in sequence from the Gospels. This includes the Gospel of Matthew 26:21-28, in which Jesus says that one of his Apostles will be his betrayer. The Eucharist is then introduced. Da Vinci was enamored by the way in which man’s character is revealed through gestures, posturing and expression. This is visible in the painting as each disciple’s individual reaction to Christ’s speech is shown. There is distinct movement portrayed as each disciple grieves, shouts, whispers, falls or rises in response. It feels like all this activity is taking place around Christ, who sits in the center, calmly.
Vitruvian Man (c. 1490)
A drawing by da Vinci, housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, in Venice, is executed in ink. It was included in one of the numerous notebooks the artist kept as references. The drawing has da Vinci’s notes on the page. These notes are based on the ideal human proportions that Vitruvius, the Roman architect, described in a book. This drawing shows the theory of Vitruvius, as was laid out by the architect in the 1st century BCE.
The theory stipulates that the ideal human being could fit himself or herself into both a circle and a square. These two, according to most mathematicians, were considered shapes that were irreconcilable. Da Vinci’s artwork shows both his effort at comprehending relevant texts, and his ardent wish to extrapolate ideas and extend his outlook. At the time, the drawing was used by him to expand his knowledge, but later it became an iconic work. It seemed to exemplify the appropriate symbolism of the Renaissance, as it combined the fields of philosophy, mathematics and art. As it is an ink-on-paper rendition, it is not always on display now. Rather, to preserve it, it is housed in an archive that is climate-controlled.
Head of a Woman (1500-10)
On display at the National Gallery in Parma, there is a distinguished lesser-known, but exquisite artwork of da Vinci. It has been executed by the master artist on poplar wood, using oil, earth and white lead pigments. Da Vinci painted this with a small brush. The picture is of a beautiful young woman with her head tilted to one side and her eyes cast downward. Her posture is in close resemblance to Mary in the later Virgin of the Rocks. The drawing may have inspired the painting. The loose tendrils of the woman’s hair give her an untidy, yet pure appearance. The painting is nicknamed “La scapigliata” which means “disheveled”. His ability to use contrasting forms is obvious here as the woman’s face is highly finished to perfection, while her hair is left unkempt.
Self Portrait (c. 1490/1515-16)
A maestro at working with different mediums, da Vinci’s Self Portrait was rendered over many years. It is done in red chalk and is kept at the Royal Library in Turin. There has never been a confirmation that this is his self-portrait. Experts suggest that this old, scraggly man thought of as the master artist himself looks much older. Their argument is validated by the fact that da Vinci died at the age of 67. They say that it could not be da Vinci as he wouldn’t have reached the age of the man depicted in the portrait. Scholars have theorized that it could be an experimental drawing of any old man, with an eccentric appearance. It is such a far cry from his typical appealing subjects, yet it has a noble and wise countenance.
Salvator Mundi (c. 1500)
Amongst all the artwork by Leonardo is this one, a portrait of Christ’s head. The name translates to “Savior of the World”. It is an oil painting executed on a wood panel. Though there is some controversy regarding whether the painter actually painted this particular work, experts believe in the efficacy of the claim that he did. The work of art has questionable provenance and some scholars think that it couldn’t have been da Vinci’s work. They say, for one thing, the portrait lacks skill and shows Christ in an unrealistic stiff posture. This, in itself, is unlike da Vinci’s realistic and fluid style. They also question the globe held in Christ’s palm, saying that if it was solid would have reflected its holder’s distorted face. Such an optical illusion wouldn’t have passed by da Vinci’s scientific rationale while rendering it.
Yet, aficionados argued that the stiffness was caused by the painting being overworked on through the years. Also, they explained that it was painted in an expensive pigment called ultramarine, one that was mainly used by da Vinci. The portrayal of detail, of Christ’s finely molded hands and curls in the hair, was pointed out as characteristic of the genius’ control over his art.
Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489-91)
A painting done in oil on wood panel, this rendition is believed to be the mistress of da Vinci’s patron, Ludovico Sforza. He was the Duke of Milan. The ermine was an emblem of the duke. The painting represents da Vinci’s ever-evolving knowledge of anatomy. His skill in representing character with expression is very clear here. The woman is youthful and her slender bone structure is revealed in her hand, her neck and her cheekbones. The animal is depicted with authenticity as well, to the detail of its fur, it’s limbs and its face.