6. A comparison of form

The Virgin from the National Gallery painting

         The body of the Virgin Mary in the National Gallery painting of the Virgin of the Rocks has a very solid and three dimensional form. Its conveys all the evidence of having been drawn from life or from a carefully composed study in which the anatomy of the figure was taken into account. The robes reveal and emphasise the solidity of the limbs underneath. The forms of the legs and knees are clearly visible through the skirt. The knees are firmly placed on the rock surface and the garment crumples and drapes in a very natural way over the rock. There must have once existed a very detailed preparatory study for that figure, drawn on paper and long since lost.

The Virgin from the Louvre painting
        In the case of the Louvre painting of the Virgin of the Rocks, although the basic outlines of the figure are the same, there is no feeling for solid form under the garments. With the exception of the face and hands there is no evidence that this figure was drawn from life or that there was an anatomical study.

      This figure looks as if its main outlines have been traced off from the London painting so that while the easily-seen details, for example the yellow edges of the robe and diagonal fold of the skirt, remain in the same place, the sense of what lies beneath has gone. The artist has not interested himself in solidity of form as much as in overall effect. If indeed this painting, lacking as it does in anatomical form and solidity, is the first one and the London painting is the copy, then the artist has achieved the almost impossible task of creating matter out of nothing.

The Angel from the National Gallery.
NOTE: this image has been tonally adjusted
 to make the robe clearly visible for purpose
of comparison 
        The case for the angel in the London painting preceding that in the Louvre painting is even stronger. The body of the angel in the London painting is clearly defined by its robes and once again has the appearance of having been drawn from life. The red cloak on the angel in the Louvre painting not only obscures but somewhat distorts the figure as if the folds of the robe had been arranged flat on the floor, rather than wrapped around a living person. It is obvious that the angel in the Louvre painting could not have provided the model for the angel in the London painting but rather that it was the other way about.

The Angel from the Louvre painting

           It is the Virgin of the Rocks in London that is true to the original concept and to some now-lost detailed studies, almost certainly from life. It is the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks that is a copy of the London original. Moreover, it is clear that the Louvre painting has not been derived from a now-lost original drawing, but from a tracing of the painting that showed only the major forms and not the details. Because while almost everything that pertains to basic outline is very nearly identical, almost everything that pertains to detailed observation is different, the expressions of the faces, the hair, the rocky foreground, the plants, the angel's robe, the Virgin's hand and the folds of the yellow lining of her cloak.  

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor