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Leonardo's studies of physiognomy

RCIN 912276

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A large sketch of the Madonna and Child with the infant Baptist fills almost the whole of this sheet. The Madonna is our first sight of the kneeling figure that Leonardo returned to repeatedly during his career (cf. RCIN 912337); her head is in two positions, looking tenderly at the twisting, suckling Child, and gazing sombrely downwards towards us, while a few lines indicate a watery landscape with precipitous hills, as seen in many of Leonardo’s paintings. No corresponding painting by Leonardo is known, but several variants by followers may indicate that he worked it up at least as far as a cartoon.

Leonardo then filled every remaining space with 13 impassive human profiles (and another 11 on the reverse of the sheet), two roaring lions and a snarling dragon. He is exploring how small variations can change a beautiful youth into a child, a young woman or an old man. These were standard Florentine types but struck a deep chord in Leonardo, and remained a constant in his work – seen in doodles, comic grotesques (RCIN 912490, 912495), studies for paintings such as the Last Supper (RCIN 912547 - 912552), and finished drawings with no apparent function (RCIN 912553, 912554, 912556, 912557).

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018