Art News Roundup: Chicken and Egg Edition

Much as I don’t care for the work of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), even I was fascinated by the latest scientific discovery to be made concerning one of his completed masterpieces, because it raises significant questions about the chronology of his surviving work.

Ahead of an immersive exhibition on the painting that will open this November, the National Gallery in London has released amazing images of its version of “The Virgin of the Rocks” (supposedly circa 1491-1508, with interruptions), which reveal what lies beneath the visible surface of the altarpiece. Using macro x-ray fluorescence, as well as infrared and hyperspectral imaging, researchers were able to detect Leonardo’s original design for the composition, because it was drawn using a material containing zinc oxide. These advanced scanning technologies can distinguish a single mineral, such as zinc, from other materials that are present on the wooden panel.

When the zinc oxide underdrawing is superimposed on top of the existing painting, we can see that Leonardo made a great number of changes to his design. Notice for example how the position of the Virgin Mary in the original composition, looking to her left with her right arm outstretched, is completely different from that in the final picture, where she looks down and to her right as her right arm embraces St. John the Baptist (who was completely absent in the original underdrawing), and her left arm reaches forward over the Christ Child. Similarly, in the underdrawing the angel at the right of the picture was shown looking down at the Infant Jesus as he embraces Him, appearing much more engaged than he does in the final product, where he simply stares off rather dreamily into space and does not embrace the Child as tightly.


As interesting as this is on a scientific level, the discovery will probably reignite an art history debate that has been going on for centuries. The Louvre maintains that their version of the painting (supposedly 1483-1486) is entirely by Leonardo, while the version in the National Gallery is both later and mostly by Leonardo’s assistants. The National Gallery on the other hand, while so far conceding that the Louvre version is probably earlier than theirs, dispute the claim that their version is merely or even mostly a workshop copy, and instead claim that the bulk of the painting is by Leonardo, working in a different style. Not only has extensive scientific testing borne out Leonardo’s work on the picture, but there’s now sufficient evidence to question whether the National Gallery’s picture is, in fact, a later work.

If the underdrawing in the National Gallery picture is by Leonardo (and at this point there’s no reason to believe it’s not), and if the Louvre painting was created before the National Gallery painting, then why did the artist start out with such a very different composition, only to go back to a composition that he had used before? Typically, these kinds of dramatic design changes are more likely to appear underneath the first version of a painting, when the artist is still organizing his thoughts. Later versions of the painting can then simply follow the finalized template, with a few changes here and there as needed.

In 2010 the Louvre picture was scanned using technology similar to that used on that in the National Gallery, but at that time researchers were looking at thickness of paint levels, not for preparatory drawing data. Despite the new information obtained by the National Gallery, the Louvre probably won’t agree to further scans of their version of the picture to help settle this question. Gallic pride being what it is, there’s simply no way that the French are going to admit that they may have been wrong, and they can avoid making that admission by avoiding further testing.

I freely admit that I’m no Da Vinci expert, but I’ve always thought that the National Gallery picture is the earlier of the two. For one thing, the figures in the National Gallery picture have the traditional halos that one would expect on a Renaissance religious painting. While there’s no way to know for certain whether Leonardo painted them himself or whether they were added later, the Louvre picture has no halos at all. That may be significant, because we know that Leonardo put halos on his religious figures earlier in his career, such as in his “Annunciation” (1472), but by the time he painted the “Last Supper” (1495), if not earlier, he was no longer using them. A related distinction is the fact that the National Gallery picture looks more like the sharply delineated, almost crystalline paintings that Leonardo executed during his time in Florence, while the Louvre picture looks more like the somewhat misty pictures he produced later during his move to Mantua and on to Milan, when he developed his “sfumato” or “smoky” technique of blurring edges and backgrounds to create more realistic lighting effects.

So which came first? Who knows – but I doubt that the Louvre is going to cross the road to find out. But since you’ve probably had enough chicken-flavored puns for one post, gentle reader, let’s move on to some other art news from the week gone by.

Olé, Dublin

Speaking of the National Gallery in London, for those of my readers who were unable to see the Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) retrospective during its highly successful run there – it drew over 150k visitors, which is quite remarkable for an artist whose work had not been exhibited in England for over a century – you may want to consider visiting Dublin this Fall, as the exhibition has just taken up residence at the National Gallery of Ireland. What’s more, in addition to the works that were shown in London, an additional 14 paintings have been lent by Irish and American collectors and institutions for the show’s Dublin run. The museum has planned a host of activities in celebration of the show, including lectures, tours, events specifically designed for children, young adults, families, and the elderly, and what I personally would love to have seen: a flamenco performance staged before Sorolla’s art. Sadly, that particular event is now sold out, but let’s hope that it goes up on YouTube at some point.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” is at the National Gallery of Ireland through November 3rd.


Uuf, Notre Dame

After I noted last week that things finally seemed to be back on track for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris, things appear to have gone awry once again. First, city officials have again pushed back the back-to-work date for ongoing cleanup to at least August 19th, due to the high levels of lead particulates continuing to plague the Cathedral work site as well as nearby schools. Then yesterday, the Ministry of Culture indicated that actual restoration work will not begin before sometime in the first half of next year, at the earliest. Meanwhile, thanks to the exposed structural stonework of the Basilica, and the expansion and contraction caused by the summer heat, chunks of masonry are continuing to fall at the site, indicating that the entire thing is still in danger of collapse.


Ah, Venice

A new entry for the “It’s About Time” file, for those concerned about the future of La Serenissima: cruise ships will finally be barred from entering the main canal that runs through downtown Venice. In addition to creating rather jarring images like that shown below, the presence of these bloated behemoths has created a host of problems for the city over the last 30 years, including collisions with smaller vessels, water traffic jams, massive pollution, and water displacement, affecting both the quality of life in the city as well as damaging many of the architectural treasures of the lagoon. In future, visitors arriving via cruise ship who wish to visit the city will be putting ashore at port areas outside of the central district, but in true Italian bureaucratic fashion, some of these new facilities have yet to be built.


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