Painting of the Day

18 Feb


The Virgin of the Rocks. by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Oil on wood panel (now transferred to canvas), c.1485. 6’6”x4’. Currently on view at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, fourth edition:

In April 1483, Leonardo contracted with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to paint an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, a painting now known as The Virgin of the Rocks. The contract stipulates a painting of the Virgin and Child with angels, but Leonardo added a figure of the young John the Baptist, who balances the composition at the left, pulled into dialogue with his younger cousin Jesus by the long, protective arm of the Virgin. She draws attention to her child by extending her other hand over his head, while the enigmatic figure of the angel—who looks out without actually making eye contact with the viewer—points to the center of interaction. The stable, balanced pyramidal figural group—a compositional formula that will become a standard feature of High Renaissance Classicism—is set against an exquisitely detailed landscape that dissolves mysteriously into the misty distance.


My comments:

The Virgin’s hands and arms are exceedingly awkward in this painting. Her right arm looks unrealistically long for her small frame, and the way her right hand curls around baby John the Baptist appears more threatening than sweet and motherly. Her left hand that hovers over the infant Christ, as if she is blessing him, also seems strange. The overall narrative of the painting that would explain why these particular figures sit here in the meadow and what they are doing is quite unclear. If art historians had not discovered through research the origins of this painting, it would be too easy to see this as a secular painting, like a genre scene.

In those aspects, Leonardo’s painting here is subpar. But his handling of value, the changes in tone of all the hues caused by the addition of more light or dark, is so superb that it overshadows any flaws in the image and instantly elevates it to the level of masterpiece. As we’re focusing on handling the problem of rendering value when drawing still lifes in my studio art class, it is clear how much Leonardo’s use of the technique sfumato has influenced artists and the processes artists try to use in order to make a more convincing image. Sfumato is basically what we try to emulate when we try to use shading to give the objects in our still lifes substance and tangibility. It’s really amazing how much of an effect it has on the beauty of a drawing or painting, and it is what makes Leonardo’s art have this kind of pure, universally recognized gorgeousness to them. The rock formation behind the figures in the foreground of The Virgin of the Rocks really doesn’t make sense, the plausibility of the story here seems suspect, but Leonardo’s mastery of color and light surpasses everything so much that the problems become easily forgotten, and we are left marveling at the sheer beauty of the painting.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara February 18, 2013 at 3:50 am #

    when i think of virgin on the rocks it is usually a non alcoholic drink wth ice.

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