“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” the new exhibition at the National Gallery in London, is just as good as it promised to be.
The basic concept is extraordinary: gathering more paintings by one of the greatest artists than have ever been seen together. The experience is thrilling. What’s more, it’s likely to change the minds of experts on Leonardo (1452-1519). This is a triumph for the museum, and the curator, Luke Syson.
The subject isn’t the artist’s entire career, just the years Leonardo spent in Milan, from around 1482 to the end of 1499. That’s the central portion of his life, in which he developed into the artist, scientist and thinker we know. This period, as Syson says in the catalog, was “the making of him.”
To do full justice to the argument of the exhibition, which consists mostly of drawings and works by pupils and followers, would need several visits. The heart of it consists of two phenomenal comparisons. Most stunning of all, to my eye, is the juxtaposition in the second room of two of Leonardo’s supreme portraits -- “The Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani,” otherwise known as “The Lady With an Ermine” (c. 1489-90), and “La Belle Ferronniere” (c. 1493).
These are hung together in the same space for the first time since the late 15th century, perhaps for the first time ever. The result is electrifying. Each on its own is a masterpiece, a supreme example of the revolution that Leonardo brought to portraiture. This was, in essence, not simply to attempt a tremendously naturalistic depiction of the sitter’s appearance, but to summon up in paint what he called “the motions of the mind” -- a whole, complex, living personality.
He did that in each of these pictures, yet to completely different effect. Gallerani, a teenage mistress of the Duke of Milan, is gracefully and intelligently attentive to someone -- the duke himself? -- out of the picture to the right. “La Belle Ferronniere,” on the other hand, is reserved and imperious, beautiful though haughty enough to make plausible the idea suggested in the catalog that she’s not another mistress of the duke, but a great aristocrat, his duchess.
There are nuances in the actual physical presence of these paintings, and also the “Portrait of a Young Man” (c. 1486-7), that no reproduction can capture. They are a demonstration of Lucian Freud’s account of what makes some pictures greater than others: “because we believe them more.”
The second set piece comparison is between the two versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks.” One is owned by the Louvre and painted between 1483-85; the other is in the National Gallery’s collection and wasn’t finished until 1506-8. There has been endless debate about why two pictures of the same composition were required, and how much -- if any -- of the second work Leonardo painted himself.
The exhibition gives a decisive answer to the second question. Clearly, most of the painting is by the master, though a few details such as the flowers in the foreground are a little crude. The contrast doesn’t flatter the London picture. The Louvre “Virgin” is a beguiling painting, full of the freshness of the Florentine Renaissance (and finished not long after the artist had left Florence for Milan). The National Gallery’s version, in contrast, is chilly and filled with the creepy weirdness that inhabits Leonardo’s later work.
The newly attributed “Christ as Salvator Mundi” (about 1499 onwards) has that too. It’s a strange image. Still, there’s not much question, when standing in front of the picture that, though badly damaged, it’s an authentic Leonardo. It has that presence and aura. On the other hand, the “Madonna Litta” (about 1491-5), another much-discussed work hanging in the next room, obviously isn’t. With its monstrous baby, it belongs with the sometimes ghastly works of Leonardo’s followers and pupils. He was a dangerous model to imitate.
It’s part of the purpose of great exhibitions to solve such conundrums. The other purpose is to give pleasure, and in that respect this is perhaps the best chance to look at Leonardo, the painter, in several hundred years.
“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” is at the National Gallery through Feb. 5, 2012. The exhibition is sponsored by Credit Suisse AG. Advance booking is recommended and there is timed ticket entry. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)