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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leo's Ladies

L.H.O.Q. 1919,
Marcel DuChamp
It has been said that good things come in threes. That apparently holds true in everything from magi to stooges. It is certainly the case when it comes to Leonardo Da Vinci's three greatest portraits. Three? Yes. Even school children are aware of the Mona Lisa. Painted in 1503 (though tradition has it that Leonardo worked on it for a number of years after that), it is, without a doubt, the most famous painting, let alone portrait, in the world today. Unfortunately it also suffers greatly from overexposure, having become something of a lightning rod for anyone who wants to lampoon art, or deflate art history whenever it becomes too pompous for its own good. Poor Mona has taken hits from everyone from Salvadore Dali and Marcell Duchamp to Mad Magazine. And, while its an excellent piece of portraiture on a number of levels, of the three, I would count it as only his second best effort.

Cecillia Gallarani:
Lady with an Ermine,
1485-90, Leonardo da Vinci

An earlier portrait by Leonardo, dating from around 1485, is so much more beautiful, natural, and interesting, in looking at it, it's hard to see what all the fuss is over Mona. The paintings is titled Cecillia Gallarani. In it, a lovely young girl holds a white ferret in her arms while gazing off wistfully into the distance. She is fashionably dressed with black pearls looped around her neck and hanging down behind an elegant, perhaps slightly elongated hand. Unlike the Mona Lisa, she seems warm and approachable. In this, the second of the three paintings (the Mona Lisa being the third), there is no evidence that Leonardo is playing with geometry or experimenting with anything more mysterious than minimizing his subject's somewhat long nose to the point we are aware of it only after considerable study of her nonetheless attractive face.

Ginevra de 'Benci, 1474-78,
Leonardo da Vinci

The other Leonardo portrait is the first of the three, and, to my way of thinking, the least attractive of the trio. It was painted in 1474 and is said to depict Ginevra de' Benci. Of the three, it's the only one I've seen and the only Leonardo in the U.S. It's the proud possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington (also probably it's most valuable possession). In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo seems to have been experimenting with circles and ovals but he at least kept his geometric interests subtle. In his portrait of Ginevra De' Benci, his fascination with the circle almost literally leaps off the canvas, the roundness of her head and hair perhaps the first thing that strikes you in seeing the work. So help me, the effect is uncomfortably close to a "smiley face" except, unfortunately, she's not smiling (perhaps with good reason). Her skin is ivory and cold, the face is colorless and bland, the mouth tight and too tiny, the curls in her hair, tight and labored. Added together, I find it stiff and unattractive. Of the three, it is the least successful portrait, though Vasari and a number of other experts disagree with me on this. But, it was an early effort (Leonardo would have been 22 at the time), and it appears that he learned from it.  Even of Leonardo, what more could you ask.

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