5. A comparison of style


   While it is generally agreed that the Virgin of the Rocks belonging to the Louvre is the earlier painting of the two, and that Leonardo sold it to a client other than the Fraternity of the Immaculate Conception, there are two somewhat different theories as to the dating of that painting. 

   The mostly widely accepted theory is that the Louvre painting is the one that was done to fulfil the commission of 1483, and that the National Gallery painting was done as a substitute, from about 1486 to 1508. 

   Another theory, put forward by Martin Davies, a previous director of the National Gallery, is that the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is an early work painted in Florence and taken by Leonardo to Milan in 1481.  Kenneth Clark, after initial hesitation, agreed with this theory and suggested that the London Virgin of the Rocks was begun in 1483 to fulfil the commission.    

    Opposing this, Ottino della Chiesa observes that the measurements of the Louvre painting, and its  rounded top are compatible with Giacomo del Maino’s altarpiece,  and points out that it is unlikely that Leonardo coincidentally painted a picture in Florence that fit the dimensions, without having received a commission first. 

    There are two possible reasons for considering that the Louvre painting was created in Florence.   The first is its iconography, which gives a strong emphasis to John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.  The second reason put forward by Davies and Clark is that the painting, particularly of the faces, is more delicate than that in the National Gallery picture and that this is stylistically more in keeping with the earliest of Leonardo’s works.   


   My comparison of the painting of the faces in Leonardo's works leads me to a conclusion that is different to either the widely accepted opinion, or that proposed by Davies and Clark.  My examination of the paintings supports an opinion that the National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks is earlier than the version in the Louvre. 

The Virgin Mary from The Annunciation (1473-74)
pale shadows typical of Verrocchio 

    The faces that present themselves for comparison, in support of Davies' theory, are those done in direct influence of Verrocchio’s workshop: the Madonna in the Uffizi Annunciation, the Benois Madonna and the Madonna of the Carnation.  The unfinished face in the Adoration of the Magi gives no sense of its finished appearance or its modeling or lighting. 

    There is a consistency in the Madonnas of the three finished early works in that all of them present an image of a fair, sweet-faced girl, her face bathed with a soft light that defines the forms.  When we compare these three works with the portrait of Ginevera de Benci, and the later portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, we see Leonardo maintaining a clear definition of form, in the manner of his teacher Verrocchio, while employing an increasing use of chiaroscuro to define it.  The Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery fits this progression exactly.  The Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, if considered as a work of Leonardo's first Florentine period, does not. 

The Virgin Mary from
the Madonna of the Carnation (1475-76)
increasing use of directional light to model form
    While the London painting shows a consummate use of chiaroscuro to define form, the Louvre painting is moving in a direction at which Leonardo was yet to arrive in 1483: the development and perfecting of the use of sfumato.  The face of the Virgin in the Louvre painting is much too soft, much to blurred in form to have been painted in Leonardo’s first Florentine period.  It has been argued by Ottino della Chiesa and others that Leonardo could only have painted this effect of haze after having been exposed to the gentle light of Lombardy.  

    A comparison of works other than the two Virgin of the Rocks, reveals that Leonardo's stylistic development was from the more precise and more defined, towards the more shadowy, more blurred and more ethereal.  This development becomes very clear when an early work, such as the Benois Madonna is compared with a later work the Virgin and Child with St Anne.   The forms in the London Virgin of the Rocks are more clearly defined than in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, indicating that the London painting is the earlier. 

Ginevra de' Benci (about 1474) shows the application
of light to emphasise modelling of the surface of the face

     A characteristic that Leonardo took from his teacher Verrocchio is the detailed modelling of the surface of the face by the use of subtle tonal gradation and white highlights so that the various small convexities and concavities are all defined, as well as the major ones such as nose, chin and brow.  The manner of painting affects the treatment of the flesh above the eyelid, the cheekbones, the jaw and the pronounced depiction of convex and concave forms around the mouth.  This style of painting is clearly seen is the Virgin and Child and two Angels by Verrocchio and an assistant in the National Gallery.  It is present in the Benois Madonna and the Madonna of the CarnationThe same treatment defines the face of Ginevra de Benci.  

This drawing, probably by a follower of Leonardo,
demonstrates the detailed method of modelling a
face that Leonardo learned in Verrocchio's studio
      In the work of Leonardo, this treatment of the surface of the flesh reaches its peak in the face of Mary in the London Virgin of the Rocks.  The reason for this is the stark lighting which Leonardo has employed and the contrast of cool shadows on the face which make the highlights more prominent.  The painting appears to have had pronounced affect on Leonardo's pupils and contemporaries, as we see this treatment occurring to a marked extent in the works of Boltraffio and in the Pala Sforza by an unknown painter, but perhaps Cosimo Roselli and Piero di Cosimo. 

The treatment of the face of the Virgin is similar to
 the drawing above,  and has greater contrast of tone
than Ginevra de' Benci.
    The depth of light and shade on the face of the Virgin in the London painting may be derivative and have come to Leonardo along with the use of oil paint as a medium from the Flemish School.  It is also seen in the works of Antonello da Messina, and reached its height of development with Caravaggio a century later.  In the strength of its chiaroscuro, the face of the Virgin in London bears resemblance to those of the allegorical figures in the two remaining works of a series done by another court painter, and also in the National Gallery, Music and Justice by Joos van Ghent. 


Another way in which this painting differs from Leonardo's earlier depictions of the Madonna and also from the face of Ginevra de' Benci is that all his earlier female faces were, like Verrocchio's, round and fair.  The Madonna in the Virgin of the Rocks has a longer face and is much darker. 

The drawing for the angel in the Louvre Virgin
of the Rocks
 lacks the tight formal qualities
of Leonardo's training and early works.
   The treatment of the faces in Leonardo's later works became progressively and demonstrably less formal as he moved away from the influence of his early training and explored the effects of light and shade.  Where tonality had been used previously to define shapes and details, Leonardo began to explore the possibility of using the same element to disguise them.  The process is well under way by the time he paints the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, and is at its most pronounced in his late work John the Baptist.


Study of Jesus for the Last Supper,  Milan
The softness of both the drawing and the painting
resembles the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks.
Leonardo's other major painting commission in Milan was the Last Supper for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie.  The Last Supper dates from 1495-97, more than ten years after the commission for the Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo's style had changed in that time towards a greater delicacy and softness.  The London Virgin of the Rocks bears little resemblance to it in any way.   But there appears to be a strong resemblance in the treatment of the faces of both Christ and the youthful St John the Evangelist in the Last Supper and the face of the Virgin in the Louvre painting.  In painting the second Virgin of the Rocks, the Louvre version, Leonardo carried the softer, more delicate style further,  with the face of the Virgin handled in a manner quite unlike the prototype in the altarpiece.


The face of the Virgin in the Louvre painting shows
a softer lighting and less-defined treatment of the forms,
suggesting a later date than the London painting. 
    The differences that are apparent in a comparison between the Louvre and National Gallery versions of the Virgin of the Rocks are that in the Louvre painting the outer contours  are more elegant, the surfaces are smoothed out and caressed by a delicate glow of light and a haze of sfumato that removes the minor surface features.  This is in keeping with  The Virgin and Child with St Anne and the Lamb also in the Louvre, and thought to date from the first decade of the 16th century.  


When the face of the Virgin in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is compared with the two faces in the Virgin and Child with St Anne, also in the Louvre, a number of similarities become apparent.   Although the face of the model of St Anne is obviously considerable older,  there are marked similarities in the handling, which are not seen when the same painting is compared to the London version.  The handling of the eyes is markedly similar, as are the smoother contours of the whole face.  The light glides over the surface, ignoring the small diagonal crease below the eye, minimising the furrow between top lip and cheek and disguising the details of the corners of the mouth.  All these small details are clearly defined in the London painting.   


The face of the Virgin in the Virgin and Child with St Anne has an exquisite delicacy, a naturalism and a total abandonment of the constraints of Leonardo's formal Florentine training.  The face of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is the herald of this new freedom of vision. 

In the Virgin and Child with St Anne,  Leonardo's style is less 
formalised, and has broader sweeps of light and shade,
 and subtle used of sfumato.


Somewhere between the treatment of the Virgin of the Rocks in London and the Virgin and Child with St Anne and the Lamb lies the Mona Lisa, generally dated at 1503-1505 and Leornardo's ultimate expression of the effect that the meticulous depiction of light and shade on a face can achieve, when the one glows and and the latter is hazy.  






Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor 




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