Painting, the Liberal Arts, and the Great Conversation, Part III

Mona Lisa by Leonardo
Mona Lisa by Leonardo

This is the third and final post by an art historian, art critic, and curator on the role of the visual arts in the liberal arts curriculum.

Most of what we know of Leonardo’s creative, scientific, and imaginative work we known from his notebooks. Over 6,000 sheets of notes and drawings reveal his in-depth explorations of architecture, geometry, geology, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, anatomy, sculpture, and of course painting.  Surprisingly, it appears that these 6,000 sheets represent as little as one-fifth of what he actually produced. And despite the fact that he painted arguably the most recognizable painting in the Western tradition: the Mona Lisa, which hangs in the Louvre, Leonardo only made twenty-one paintings throughout his remarkable 46-year career. A number of these pictures remained unfinished and several never came into the possession of those who commissioned them.

Leonardo & Painting

Painting occupied a unique position within Leonardo’s varied pursuits. He spent his entire life searching for patronage. He spent only sixteen years in his native Florence, three years in Rome, three years in France, and twenty-four years in Milan (two stays of eighteen and six years). Unlike his more conventional and object-producing artistic contemporaries, Leonardo rarely produced finished artifacts without long and frustrating delays, and so he was much less comfortable working in the merchant economy of Florence than in the courts of monarchs, whom he served as an advisor, consultant, researcher, and, when needed, decorator and portrait painter.

Moreover, in his letters of solicitation for patronage, Leonardo rarely listed his ability to paint pictures high on the list of marketable skills—he was known throughout Italy as a master engineer, cartographer, and an expert in hydraulics. One could thus easily come to the conclusion that painting was less important to him than any of the many practices and scientific investigations he engaged in, such as designing flying machines, military weapons, or mapping the flow of the Arno River.  And who can blame Leonardo for not emphasizing his work as a painter? Nearly all of his patrons–Ludovico Sforza of Milan, the Signoria of the Florence republic, Louis XII and Francis I of France, Cesare Borgia (head of the Papal armies) or Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Pope Leo X) at the Vatican–were interested primarily in his service to the military, government, and the state. And so it would be easy to conclude that for Leonardo, despite his extraordinary talent, painting was an afterthought, especially in the light of the pages and pages of scientific investigation in which Leonardo engaged. Science and engineering appear thus to be much more important to Leonardo than painting.

Yet, as art historian Martin Kemp has argued, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Kemp argues that for Leonardo, the flying machine and Mona Lisa were “the same kind of thing.” Far from being merely a marginal practice, just one of a number of skills he could offer to his patron, painting was the very center of his work. In fact, as Kemp observed, each painting was “a proof of Leonardo’s understanding.”

When Leonardo needed to advance his understanding of a particular scientific subject, he chose painting in which to do it.

And for Leonardo his understanding was rooted neither in the tradition of the church nor classical antiquity (an emerging authority for his humanist contemporaries), but in the observation and close study of nature. “All our knowledge,” writes Leonardo in a notebook entry, “has its origin in our perceptions.” And his perceptions, as he observed natural phenomena, whether the movements of the human body, the flow of water, or geological features of his native Tuscany, were resolved conceptually, pictorially, in and through painting. For Leonardo painting was the pre-eminent practice of perception. In fact, Leonardo even suggested, “He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature” for him, painting was a science, a “true-born child of nature.”

The Painting

In 1503 Leonardo received a commission from a wealthy Florentine silk merchant to paint his young wife.  While the merchant simply wanted a beautiful decorative portrait to show off his wife’s beauty by one of the more well-known painters of the age, Leonardo seemed to have something else in mind. The painting was still with him when he died at Amboise while serving at the court of Francis I nearly fifteen years later. Kemp argues that the merchant never received it because Leonardo never finished it. Evidence suggests that he worked on it continuously and Kemp claims that Leonardo continued to work on it as an extension of and in response to his developing scientific investigations.

The Particular & The Universal

What is the relationship of a painting, a portrait no less, to scientific knowledge? For Leonardo knowledge derives through the senses and primarily through vision and painting is the predominant, most intense mode of vision.  What was Leonardo after in this little painting? An abiding concern for Leonardo’s scientific work was the relationship between the subjectivity and particularity of the individual human consciousness in relationship to the vastness, impersonality, and objectivity of nature.  Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s attempt to demonstrate in paint the results of his scientific investigations into the relationship of the personal and the universal. Kemp writes,

“No image has ever been more particular in the way it engages us with a specific human presence. No picture of an individual has ever born such universalizing truths about the indissolubility of our lives with the life of the world.”

Indeed, this little painting, a tourist destination for millions of people, and which has attracted the critical and creative attention of the greatest minds for five hundred years, represents the summation of all of Leonardo’s creative, rational, observational, and imaginative powers, expressing his belief that what he sought in his investigations and ultimately found was an essential unity between the individual and the world.

Leonardo stands on the cusp of modernity without the firm foundation of theological or philosophical tradition and refuses to relegate painting to decoration or representation. Rather he enlists it as his primary instrument for the discovery of meaning in the world, an ambitious and difficult path that many artists over the centuries will attempt to follow, although often with different results.

Daniel A. Siedell is Presidential Scholar & Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City. He is currently teaching an online course, History of Contemporary Art, for Concordia University Irvine.

For Further Reading:

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press, 1972).

Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and Man (Harvard University Press, 1981).

––––––––––, Leonardo (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1568; Penguin Classics, 1971).

Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting (1435; Penguin Classics, 1991).

Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.)

Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture & Society in Italy (Princeton University Press, 1986).