How the Louvre’s Leonardo Blockbuster Shows a Master’s Progress

PARIS — No establishment in the world owns extra Leonardo da Vincis than the Louvre. There are 5 work in its collections — together with, most famously, the Mona Lisa, which the Renaissance artist had with him, together with two different masterpieces, when he died in France in 1519.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s demise, the Louvre is staging a retrospective that includes some 160 works. The blockbuster present, which opens Oct. 24 and runs by means of Feb. 24, 2020, is “an exceptional event,” in response to the Louvre, and one in all the most formidable surveys ever of the artist’s work.

On show with the work will probably be 22 drawings in the Louvre’s personal collections; work and drawings from establishments resembling the Vatican Museums, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Royal Collection and the National Gallery in Britain, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and objects from non-public collections, together with the “Codex Leicester,” a set of scientific writings owned by Bill Gates.

Securing the Leonardo loans has been a difficult and typically rancorous course of. Late final 12 months, the governments of France and Italy fell out over the Renaissance grasp. Italy’s beneath secretary for tradition at the time, Lucia Borgonzoni, questioned plans to lend a number of works throughout the anniversary 12 months, and accused France of treating Italy like a cultural “supermarket.” The two sides resumed talks shortly afterward, and a checklist of Leonardos touring from Italy was introduced final month.

One star on the checklist almost did not make it to the Louvre: Leonardo’s well-known “Vitruvian Man” drawing of a spread-eagled male determine was briefly held again when the heritage conservation group Italia Nostra tried to block its loan in a last-minute court action, on the grounds that it was too fragile to travel. The court threw out the case last week, allowing the drawing to be shown for 8 weeks.

The Louvre is still hoping for another work it has asked for: “Salvator Mundi,” attributed to Leonardo, which sold for $450.3 million at Christie’s in November 2017. That sale made it the world’s most expensive artwork sold at auction, but it has not been seen since. The painting’s anonymous buyer is a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and may have acted on his behalf. (The Louvre would not discuss this or any other loan negotiation.)

How they would even attribute “Salvator Mundi” remains in question. One of the exhibition’s two curators, Vincent Delieuvin, said in an interview here early this month that the painting was either 100 percent by Leonardo, partly by Leonardo (with the rest by one of his students), or wholly by the student of Leonardo. The Louvre will only determine its attribution when the institution receives the painting, he added.

“It’s a damaged painting,” said Louis Frank,the exhibition’s other curator. “Much of it is missing, and it has been restored.”

“Salvator Mundi” is “a fragment,” Mr. Frank added, “and the questions are centered around that fragment.”

The works on show at the Louvre will be grouped in four sections that reveal Leonardo’s artistic progression — through his own drawings and paintings, but also through copies of his works by others, which offer useful snapshots of his artistic career. The mission is to “give a different image of Leonardo,” said Mr. Delieuvin, challenging the perception that he was someone “interested in many things, and who lived a somewhat dispersed life, dabbling in mathematics, geometry, anatomy, and every now and again, painting.”

“His life was spent striving for the most perfect form of painting,” he added.

Here are eight highlights from the retrospective that plot Leonardo’s trajectory as an artist and show the breadth and range of his talents, explained by the curators.

This drawing, also from the Louvre collection, illustrates a sudden change of style: From the sculpturelike precision of the drapery drawings, Leonardo shifted to a form of sketching that was imprecise and free-spirited, if not downright messy. The legs of the baby Christ, who grabs a fruit from the bowl and looks up at the Virgin Mary, are traced over and over, producing an almost coarse result. “This is an artist who is never finished,” said Mr. Frank. “He is constantly reworking his ideas.”

This is the only known portrait of a male figure by Leonardo, and comes to Paris from the collections of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which are the property of the Vatican state. Because the figure holds a musical score, he has long been believed to be a musician. Yet Mr. Delieuvin said recent scientific imagery showed that the hand holding the score was not included initially, so the musical reference could be a pointer to the passage of time, and the fleeting nature of existence. The painting is “completely meditative: It’s a picture of introspection,” he explained. “The figure is lost in thought.”

This painting, on loan from the Vatican Museums, is an unfinished depiction of the Roman Catholic saint, draped in a sheet and kneeling in a desert as a lion growls at his feet. Once owned by the artist Angelica Kauffmann, it is, to the Louvre curators, the perfect illustration of one of their key themes: that Leonardo allowed himself the freedom to leave works unfinished. “Most of Leonardo’s paintings are incomplete,” said Mr. Delieuvin. “This is not an artist who’s interested in producing frescoes by the kilometer, of painting never-ending madonnas and portraits. He wants to take his time, and to paint perfect works.”

This Renaissance beauty is Leonardo’s best-known female subject after the Mona Lisa. And unlike that painting, she travels: The Louvre lent her to the National Gallery in London for its 2011 Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, and, more recently, she was on display for the inauguration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum. With his painting of this woman, who was either the wife or the mistress of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, Leonardo “revolutionizes the genre of portraiture,” said Mr. Delieuvin. Rather than depict the subject in profile, as was customary in Milan at the time, he made her turn and look almost directly at the viewer. “It’s the personality, the inner feelings, and the soul that are revealed through the movement of the figure, and this extraordinary gaze,” he added.

This botanical drawing, displayed in the science section of the exhibition, is from a set of scientific drawings known as the “Codex Windsor,” owned by the Royal Collection in Britain. It is one of dozens of drawings of plants that Leonardo produced as a way of figuring out how they grew, the better to represent them in painting. It is also a stand-alone work of art, Mr. Delieuvin said. “This is not just a scientific description: Leonardo has brought all the energy of life into it,” he added. “You can feel the wind blowing through the leaves.”

If there was a competition for the world’s most famous drawing, Leonardo might win it with his “Vitruvian Man.” The famous double image of a naked male figure with outstretched arms and legs inside a circle and a square, comes from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. It is an anatomical drawing inspired by the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius, and produced while Leonardo was conducting research into mathematics and geometry as applied to human beings. A representation of the ideally proportioned man, the ink-on-paper drawing is so frail that it is not often on public display.

This painting is “Leonardo’s testament,” according to Mr. Delieuvin — the one on which he worked the longest. The Renaissance master spent 20 years perfecting this work, and produced more preparatory drawings for it than for any other painting. Where the Mona Lisa represents a single figure, there are three figures magnificently entwined here, with an elaborate mountainous landscape in the background. In the view of the Louvre curators, this is even more of an achievement than the Mona Lisa and “Saint John the Baptist,” another work in the Louvre collection. Mr. Delieuvin called it “perhaps the most revelatory, the most ambitious, and the most accomplished painting in terms of pictorial technique.”

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