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

PARIS — No institution in the world owns more Leonardo da Vincis than the Louvre. There are five paintings in its collections — including, most famously, the Mona Lisa, which the Renaissance artist had with him, along with two other masterpieces, when he died in France in 1519.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, the Louvre is staging a retrospective featuring some 160 works. The blockbuster show, which opens Oct. 24 and runs through Feb. 24, 2020, is “an exceptional event,” according to the Louvre, and one of the most ambitious surveys ever of the artist’s work.

On display with the paintings will be 22 drawings in the Louvre’s own collections; paintings and drawings from institutions such as 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 private collections, including the “Codex Leicester,” a set of scientific writings owned by Bill Gates.

Securing the Leonardo loans has been a complicated and sometimes rancorous process. Late last year, the governments of France and Italy fell out over the Renaissance master. Italy’s under secretary for culture at the time, Lucia Borgonzoni, questioned plans to lend multiple works during the anniversary year, and accused France of treating Italy like a cultural “supermarket.” The two sides resumed talks shortly afterward, and a list of Leonardos traveling from Italy was announced last month.

One star on the list nearly didn't make it to the Louvre: Leonardo’s famous “Vitruvian Man” drawing of a spread-eagled male figure was briefly held back 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.

Drapery for a Seated Figure

This exquisite study, produced by Leonardo when he was a young man and owned by the Louvre, is one of 11 studies that open the exhibition. It is displayed in the same room as a bronze sculpture that Leonardo knew well, and that is thought to have inspired this work: “Christ and Saint Thomas” by Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo’s master at the time. The sculpture is on loan from the Church and Museum of Orsanmichele in Florence. The aim is to demonstrate that Leonardo’s relationship with sculpture is “the first brick in the construction of his artistic universe,” Mr. Frank said. It was at this moment, the curators said, that Leonardo transitioned from sculpture to painting, and made painting his lifelong vocation.

Study for the Madonna With the Fruit Bowl

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.”

Portrait of a Musician

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.”

Saint Jerome

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.”

La Belle Ferronnière

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.

A Star-of-Bethlehem and Other Plants

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.”

Vitruvian Man

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.

The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne

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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