How was the second painting done? In my opinion, Leonardo made a tracing of the existent work, the London Virgin of the Rocks, and used it to create the second painting, the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks. The tracing would have indicated the shapes in a fairly clear outline, but would not reveal the details.
The process of creating a picture from a detailed cartoon is very different to the process of creating a picture from the tracing of a finished painting. The cartoon often contains details of anatomy which disappear in the finished painting but which give greater understanding and more points of reference for the artist in the creation of a convincing and lifelike work. But the process of making a detailed cartoon by tracing an existent painting is much more difficult. In a tracing, once the tissue has been laid over the original, only the edges defining contrast in tone are clearly visible. This accounts for the fact that in these two artworks the outline of the rocks, for example, is very similar, but the painted details are quite different and very much simplified in the second painting. The basic forms of drapery and position of figures were traceable, but the details of anatomy inside the garments were not.
Leonardo was a master creator. He probably didn't even bother to sketch in the finer points; he simply reinvented them. The rocky foreground with its nebulous shapes and dull tonality would have been hard to trace, so it was given an entirely new structure. The background rocks were given the same form in the second painting, because their outlines against the sky were clearly visible and easily traced.
Reduction in scale of figures
Reduction in scale of figures
Although the size of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is a few centimetres larger than the London painting, the entire composition is just slightly smaller. The technique used by artists to enlarge or shrink a work is to divide a drawing into squares and increase or decrease the size. But in this instance, the reduction is very slight indeed, and not worth the effort of meticulously reducing every part by the same proportion, particularly since the panel is actually larger. Therefore the reduction must have happened by some natural, mechanical means, in the same way as a plaster cast is always a little smaller than the object it is cast from because of shrinkage as the plaster dries.
A solution to the question of how the reduction of the second painting occurred is that Leonardo traced the first painting on a large piece of new linen gauze. But before the tracing was transferred to a new panel, the gauze shrank slightly. This reduced the total picture uniformly. Leonardo then adjusted the composition a little by moving the position of John somewhat, and lengthening the Virgin's arm so that it would still reach his shoulder. He also had more room to paint rocks and sky at the top.
Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, 2001
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