Medieval & Renaissance History, Museums/Exhibits, Painting, Renaissance

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan

The National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” opened this fall, and is the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held. Today we look at this landmark event, and the beautiful exhibition catalogue that accompanies it, which has been described by the UK Telegraph as the “new gold standard” of books on Da Vinci.

 “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” opened to the press ahead of the official launch, and the exhibition instantly gained enormous critical acclaim, with the Telegraph’s Richard Dorment calling it “the most eagerly awaited exhibition in living memory” in a great four star review. The much-anticipated exhibition has only exceeded high expectations – as the New York Times reported this week, the show is entirely sold out, and $25 tickets are being scalped for as much as $400.

TimeOut magazine featured this “landmark” exhibition on its cover, while leading broadsheet journalists have been praising the National Gallery’s acquisition of several seminal Leonardo works on loan from the Louvre and the Vatican (for instance, in an article entitled Lend us your Leonardo: how to make a blockbuster show the Guardian investigated how the exhibition was created behind the scenes).

While numerous exhibitions have looked at Leonardo da Vinci as an inventor, scientist or draughtsman,  ’Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ is the first to be dedicated to his aims and techniques as a painter. Inspired by the recently restored National Gallery painting, ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, the exhibition focuses on Leonardo as an artist. In particular it concentrates on the work he produced as court painter to Duke Lodovico Sforza inMilanin the late 1480s and 1490s.

Featuring the finest paintings and drawings by Leonardo and his followers, the exhibition examines Leonardo’s pursuit for perfection in his representation of the human form. Works on display include ‘La Belle Ferronière’ (Musée du Louvre, Paris), the ‘Madonna Litta’ (Hermitage,Saint Petersburg) and ‘Saint Jerome’ (Pinacoteca Vaticana,Rome). The two versions of Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ – belonging to the National Gallery and the Louvre – will also be shown together for the first time.

The final part of the exhibition features a near-contemporary, full-scale copy of Leonardo’s famous ‘Last Supper’, on loan from theRoyalAcademy. Seen alongside all the surviving preparatory drawings made by Leonardo for the ‘Last Supper’, visitors will discover how such a large-scale painting was designed and executed.

The catalogue Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, edited by Luke Syson, focuses on a crucial period in the 1480s and ’90s when, as a salaried court artist to Duke Ludovico Sforza in the city-state of Milan, freed from the pressures of making a living in the commercially-minded Florentine republic, Leonardo produced some of the most celebrated – and influential – work of his career. “The Last Supper”, his two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks”, and the beautiful portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Ludovico’s mistress (“The Lady with an Ermine”) were paintings that set a new standard for his Milanese contemporaries.

Leonardo’s style was magnified, through collaboration and imitation, to become the visual language of the regime, and by the time of his return toFlorencein 1500, his status was utterly transformed. Works in this catalogue represent the diverse range of Leonardo’s artistic output, from drawings in chalk, ink or metalpoint to full-scale oil paintings. Together with the authors’ meticulous research and detailed analysis, they demonstrate Leonardo’s consummate skill and extraordinary ambition as a painter.

The publication of this catalogue accompanies the release of another Leonardo book from the National Gallery: National Gallery Technical Bulletin v. 32: Leonardo Da Vinci: Pupil, Painter, and Master. Published alongside the exhibition this extended volume of The Technical Bulletin documents new research undertaken on the life and work of Leonardo. It includes an analysis of his time in Verrocchio’s workshop, where he adopted the new technique of oil painting; an article on the recent conservation and redisplay of theLondon version of “The Virgin of the Rocks”; and, examples of Leonardo’s painting practice and influence while he was court painter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.

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