Leonardo da Vinci

Posted by Sam Siegel on

Leonardo da Vinci is thought of as a master in the art world. His depiction of the female form is especially noteworthy.

Throughout his entire life, Leonardo da Vinci was passionately inspired by women. At least this is what his canvases tell us. This attraction has perhaps more to do with the way he chose to portray them. As the art critic Jonathan Jones explains in his article for The Guardian.

We must remember that before Leonardo da Vinci, the artists of the Renaissance had painted portraits deeply dominated by men. Seeing women in the superficiality of external beauty. Da Vinci’s female representation instead was the first one to study the personality, character, and individuality of women. Demonstrating how they were not just symbols of beauty, but also human beings.  His technique introduces a complex female representation. Which focuses on the expression of the face, the intensity of the look and the body language. As is explained in his Treatise on Painting, da Vinci gives specific guidelines on how to portray the female figure:

Women are to be represented in modest and reserved attitudes, with their knees rather close, their arms drawing near each other, or folded about the body; their heads looking downwards, and leaning a little on one side. To fully grasp the beauty of their face, you must not mark any muscles with a hardness of line, but let the soft light glide upon them, and terminate imperceptibly in delightful shadows: from this will arise grace and beauty to the face. Leave off affected curls and hairstyles or you will end up like those who have always as their adviser the mirror and the comb, while the wind, as it tosses and tangles their smartly dressed hair, is their greatest enemy. Depict hair which an imaginary wind causes to play about youthful faces, and adorn heads you paint with curling locks of various kinds.

Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo da Vinci

The first Leonardo’s female portrait, painted in Milan around 1479, presents fifteen-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, best known as the Lady with an Ermine. She was Ludovico Sforza’s lover and, according to art critics, the animal was an emblem of docility and kindness. Whereas the gesture of control that the young woman has over the Ermine. And the long and serpentine body of the animal, suggests her dominance over Ludovico. Meanwhile Leonardo da Vinci look of her eyes, with a slightly oblique vision. They fascinaLte the observer and definitely explains why Sforza was not the only one to be attracted to her.

Ginevra de’ Benci

Leonardo painted the image of this young woman who went beyond every patriarchal convention of her hometown. She was the daughter of a rich Florentine family. Da Vinci dressed her in plain simple clothes, however. So the spectators would focus all their attention on the young woman’s face. Ginevra de Benci looks towards us, her serious look goes directly to encounter the beholder’s eyes. In a motto written on the back of the wooden panel, Leonardo stated that she was not only beautiful but virtuous, too. We could say that her expression is the perfect example of the phrase: the eyes are the mirror of the soul.


Mona Lisa

The most famous female portrait in the world, the Gioconda, was one of Leonardo’s favorite paintings. He carried it with him until the day he died. Today the painting looks rather somber, in dull shades of brown and yellow. It is possible that the painting was once brighter and more colourful than it is now.  Leonardo used a technique known as sfumato (the blurring of sharp edges and contours by blending colours). To leave the corners of the eyes and the mouth in shadow. It was with this technique that he created the Mona Lisa. And her expression of emotional ambiguity.  The enigmatic smile that has fascinated and enchanted those who visit the Louvre Museum.

The mythical woman was called Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, or even Monna Lisa. She was born in 1479 into a noble Florentine family. And married the wealthy silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo with whom she had five children, and she died in 1542.

Leda and the Swan

Leonardo did not only paint portraits of strong women. He also gave form and brought to life the concept of ‘the erotic woman’. Leda and the Swan is one of the most provocative nudes he painted. In Leonardo represents a nude, which suggests to the human mind the idea of an “available”, sexy and provocative body.

The Da Vinci’s female representation

The artist’s vision of women verged on the limits of blasphemy for many of his contemporaries. This allowed him to create masterpieces. As well as change the way the female was represented at the time. He showed women as enigmatic, inaccessible, sweet, sensual, elusive, ambiguous or ironic. But most importantly, he showed them with a soul and character, always revealing to a great extent psychological introspection.

If you are looking to learn more about the masters check out our other blog entries like Van Gogh. Or the famous Canadian Group of Seven.

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