Andrew Lambirth finds paintings at the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition of such a singular and pure beauty as to take the breath away
The great world is humming with an event of international importance at the National Gallery: the largest number of Leonardo da Vinci’s surviving paintings ever gathered together. To see anything by this extraordinary Renaissance genius is worth turning aside for, but in recent years there have been a fair few exhibitions, principally at the V&A in 2006, at the Royal Collection in 2003, and a provincial touring show in 2002. Admittedly, these displays have consisted of Leonardo’s drawings, but the prospective visitor should be aware that this new show at the NG is also largely composed of drawings.
The press release speaks of ‘60 paintings and drawings by the great artist, as well as pictures by some of his closest collaborators’. There are actually nine paintings by Leonardo and more than 50 of his drawings (including 33 lent from the Royal Collection), together with a dozen paintings by his followers and sundry sketches. Advance publicity has been so effective that the public is flocking to the box-office in pursuit of this ‘once in a lifetime’ treat. Full-price tickets are £16. Unless the visitor is successfully buoyed up on the assurance of Leonardo’s genius, he or she might just feel short-changed by the hype surrounding this exhibition, and the (to some eyes) meagre actual showing.
That said, there are paintings here of such a singular and pure beauty as to take the breath away and inspire the soul with high imaginings. The exhibition focuses on Leonardo’s time as court painter in Milan in the 1480s and 1490s, and begins quietly enough in Room 1 with his ‘Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician)’, painted in oil on walnut panel.