Monday, 7 November 2011

A different opinion

The Virgin of the Rocks is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, which were both displayed in 2011 in an exhibition at the National Gallery London: "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the court of Milan".  The exhibition was inspired by the recent restoration of the National Gallery's Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition brought together works by the renowned Renaissance master from many different galleries.    
The highlight of the exhibition was the opportunity for lovers of Leonardo's works to see together the two versions that he painted of the Virgin of the Rocks, that which belongs to the National Gallery, and that which belongs to the Louvre.

The National Gallery pre-exhibition statement about the central works in this exciting event  is directly quoted here: 
The Virgin of the Rocks from the Louvre
“Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ paintings united” 
"The version at the Louvre, which is coming to London, was the first of the two compositions to be painted. Worked on between 1483 and 1486, it was the subject of a dispute about payment with the Milan confraternity which commissioned the work.  The painting is the product of Leonardo’s intense study of the natural world.  No landscape quite like it had ever been painted before.
The National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks was painted for the confraternity as a replacement for the Louvre version, which had probably been sold during the earlier dispute. The work demonstrates a change in Leonardo’s artistic ambitions in the years around 1490. It is a composition of the most artful complexity. Displaying the paintings together will provide a unique opportunity, illuminating the painting career of Leonardo as never before."*  

The website of the Louvre Museum, in discussing the two works, describes the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks thus:  The second, replacement picture, now in London, may have been painted by Ambrogio de Predis under Leonardo’s supervision between 1495 and 1508. **

The Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery

The Background

On the 25th April 1483, the Brothers of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and two assistants to provide the paintings for an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The commission was for a central image showing the Virgin adoring the Christ Child. Leonardo responded with a composition showing the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and an angel set in a landscape of rugged rocks, and to become known as the Virgin of the Rocks because of this feature. At some later date a copy was made, and seemingly both are by the hand of the master.

The Mystery

How there happens to be two versions of the same painting and which is the earlier of the two are questions the answers to which are unknown and have been subject to much speculation. The two paintings are very similar but very different. They are almost the same in form, and in composition. They differ in colour, in details, in lighting and in symbolism. These differences have never been successfully accounted for.

All that is known beyond doubt is that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre was in France by 1625 and that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the National Gallery London was sold by the successors of the Confraternity to Gavin Hamilton in 1785.

A Conspiracy?

It is considered by art historians that the Virgin of the Rocks which usually hangs in the Louvre Museum is the earlier of the two and is dated at around 1483. The National Gallery's painting is believed to be copy made by the artist and assistants and to date from about the 1495 to 1508.

This theory appears to have been universally accepted even though the Virgin of the Rocks which is now in London can be identified as the one that came from Milan, where you would expect the Confraternity's painting to be, and the version in the Louvre has apparently always been in France, where Leonardo spent his last years as the guest of the French King.

In order to support the theory that the Louvre painting is the earlier, an elaborate hypothesis has been formed involving Leonardo delivering the Confraternity's painting, then removing it, selling it to a private client and painting the London version as a substitute.  None of this is supported by documentary evidence.

What is the Angel telling us?
All the evidence points clearly to the fact that the London painting is the earlier by ten years, and that the Louvre painting was created for a different client. This is supported by the documentary evidence, the stylistic evidence, the symbolic evidence, by basic mechanics and simple logic.

The notion that the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is "the original" and the picture in the National Gallery is a copy made as a substitute has become a statement of provenance for the two artworks, and is repeated without challenge by the British custodians of the painting in the National Gallery.  The fabrication that Leonardo sold the original painting in a pique of annoyance over the the small size of the bonus awarded him has been seized by almost every ardent member of the media who has done a story on the exhibition. The hypothesis is simply accepted as fact. 
Both art historians and the media continue to build upon the hypothesis, searching for symbolism within the paintings to support various theories, while at the same time selectively ignoring iconography that indicates so clearly which painting was done for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and which was done for a different client entirely. 

Presented in these pages is a different answer to the questions of why the two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks were created and which is the earlier.

* from the National Gallery website 
** from the Louvre website