A searcher after unfathomable things, a painter of disquieting smiles that suggest the riddles of human personality, and of hands that point to mysteries beyond the earth, he seemed to his contemporaries a sort of magician, and to men in later centuries an Italian Faust."
So wrote biographer Robert Wallace of Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master now universally revered as one of the greatest geniuses in the history of Western art.
Artist, scientist, military engineer, philosopher and teacher, Leonardo was the archetype of the multitalented Renaissance man.
Now Leonardo's incredible accomplishments are the subject of a major exhibition at the Metro-politan Museum of Art in New York. Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman brings together nearly 120 works in the first comprehensive exhibition of his drawings ever presented in America.
The artistic and historical importance of Leonardo's drawings can hardly be overstated. Although renowned as a painter and sculptor in his own time, the artist left only a handful of paintings that can be definitely attributed to him -- 15 at most -- and none of his sculpture survives.
By contrast, Leonardo, who lived from 1452 to 1519, produced thousands of drawings over the course of his career, of which nearly 4,000 sheets survive.
Because Leonardo used drawing as a means of exploring virtually every topic that attracted his voracious intellect -- he never mastered Latin, the common language of scientific and philosophical discourse of his era -- and because many of his drawings were made for the voluminous notebooks on scientific, artistic and philosophical subjects which he kept throughout his life, much of what we know about Leonardo's life and art is attributable to his unmatched skill with pen and charcoal.
Leonardo's drawings provide a window into the inner workings of his mind, which was constantly overflowing with new ideas, and also into the age in which he lived. During the Renaissance, science and mathematics, engineering and technology, literature and the arts all were intensively studied. Above all, there was a profound identification with the art and culture of classical antiquity, with its emphasis on rational investigation and the empirical description of nature.
All these diverse currents of thought found expression in the magical lines and delicate shadings of Leonardo's drawings.
As a draftsman, Leonardo's technique was one of almost incredible virtuosity. He could draw literally anything he could observe, accurately and with such a convincing impression of solidity and depth that his pictures of horses, machines, architecture and the human figure possess an almost photographic clarity of form.
Yet his drawings also are animated by a fierce energy and a tender attention to the smallest details that one feels could only come from the deepest wellsprings of human emotion.
How did Leonardo learn to produce these spectacular effects? Certainly, he absorbed a great deal from his first teacher, the painter, sculptor and architect Andrea Del Verrocchio, to whom Leonardo was apprenticed as a boy of around 14. Though in the eyes of history, Verrocchio has been far overshadowed by his pupil, at the time he was one of the most sought-after artists in Italy -- and an important innovator in his own right.
The Met show opens with a stunning collection of Verrocchio's drawings of women's heads, which apparently were copied by the apprentices in his workshop. These drawings of faces and drapery are so deftly modeled and subtly shaded they almost seem carved in low relief.
They illustrate the new technique of sfumato -- literally "smokelike," nearly imperceptible gradations of light and shadow -- for which Leonardo would became famous but which, it now seems, Verrocchio may have invented. (Leonardo's debt to his teacher on this score was apparently so great that it is often difficult to distinguish the two; several works previously attributed to Leonardo now are recognized as Verrocchio's.)
"That your shadows and highlights fuse without hatching or strokes, as smoke does," was how Leonardo described the method, which he would use to great effect in later paintings like The Virgin of the Rocks and his Mona Lisa.
In the many studies of drapery he executed as an apprentice, Leonardo refined Verrocchio's sfumato to the point where the folded fabric forms acquire an almost palpable presence. His early sketches also include dozens of figure studies of men, women and children that became the basis for paintings, such as two of the Madonna and Child and The Adoration of the Magi.
Even Leonardo's early drawings reveal a restless, inquisitive mind that was not content to merely portray the outward forms of things but that was fixed on penetrating to their very essence.
As his art matured, the artist explored ever more complex pictorial techniques derived from his study of optics, color and perspective. Figures like the surpassingly beautiful "Head of the Virgin in Three Quarter View Facing the Right" -- executed at the height of his powers, in 1508-12, as a preparatory study for the painting Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, now in the Louvre -- not only seem to rise off the page as living, breathing presences, but even to think and feel before your eyes.
Notebooks of ideas
During his life, Leonardo was notorious for leaving major commissions unfinished and for flitting from one project to the next with little apparent regard for the wishes of patrons.
His notebooks, inscribed with his famous backward-running, left-handed script, contain an amazing variety of topics, from sketches of armaments and military fortifications to anatomical drawings, botanical subjects, portrait busts, birds, animals and machinery of all sorts (including a perpetual-motion machine and plans for airplanes and helicopters). It is almost as if he were more interested in the sheer intellectual challenge of working out such ideas in his head than in the practical problems of bringing them to fruition. No sooner had he thoroughly explored a project, it seems, than he lost interest in it.
The Met show offers fascinating insights into the mind of this enigmatic man, whose gifts -- even in an age celebrated for the brilliance of its artistic, scientific and technical achievements -- were regarded as extraordinary. The exhibition has been attracting big crowds, so give yourself plenty of time to walk through the exhibit; many of the drawings are quite small, hardly larger than a postcard, so you'll need patience to work your way through the throngs of people. But it's definitely worth the wait: There are dozens of works here that, on close inspection, are so heartbreakingly beautiful they are bound to make the trip an unforgettable experience.
What: Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman
Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York
When: Through March 30
Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 5:50 p.m., Friday-Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.