One of them painted the most recognizable image on the planet, while the other painted images once seen you will never forget. Leonardo Da Vinci and Francisco Goya were both artists ages ahead of their times. They were both forward thinkers whose explorations and innovations preceded and anticipated the movements that came after them. In the case of Da Vinci; some of his theories were centuries away from being realized. At this time, Goya is being reassessed by art historians and scholars as the first truly Modern artist. Da Vinci used art as a tool to help unravel the mysteries of the universe while Goya used it in part to explore the darkest recesses of humanity. Leonardo Da Vinci is a household name and Goya is revered by all who know of him. Art was transformed by their hands, but who is the greater artist?
Leonardo Da Vinci was a man that had so much to do during his lifetime that it ultimately divided his energies; resulting in only a precious few of his 1000’s of ideas being fully realized. His genius was a constant distraction. He had a hard time devoting all his focus to only one thing, especially when there was still so much stuff to explore. I believe this explains why we have so few of his finished paintings. Who has a 100 hours to slave over some canvas when you have helicopters to invent? By all accounts Leonardo was a master painter who loved his craft, but found no time to do it. We are left with a scant 15-16 paintings with a few more whose provenance is uncertain. It’s in Da Vinci’s drawings that we really see the breath of his work. Inventions, explorations into human anatomy, architecture and the pursuit of beauty are all represented in his sketches. His eye was honed and his technique was impeccable. Leonardo dared not only to depict the surface of his subject but also what’s at its core. He wanted to pull back the physics and take a look at the gears.
Goya on the other hand didn’t have much use for helicopters. His figures could effortlessly levitate into the air whenever he wanted them to. Goya wasn’t confined to the rules of the natural world that Leonardo so tirelessly tried to document. Goya’s scalpel was meant for the psyche rather than the body. Goya penetrated our fears and insecurities like no other artist has before or after him. Both Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali could evoke vivid nightmares filled with monsters but I argue that neither of them created a picture with as much helpless dread as Goya’s The Dog. Painted as part of his Black Paintings we see a powerless dog slowly being pulled down into what we can interpret as quicksand while his eyes scan the heavens for some sort of salvation that will never come. This painting is devastating in both its modern approach to painting along with its universal theme of feeling overwhelmed by your circumstances. Goya has a way of knocking the wind out of you.
The Mona Lisa may get all the suitors, but for me, Lady with an Ermine makes my heart skip a beat. Painted in his trademark sfumato style using newly adopted oil paints; Da Vinci depicts 15 year old Cecilia Gallerani (the mistress of the duke of Milan) holding a stoat in her arms. Not satisfied with her simply sitting straight forward, Da Vinci twists her body into a dynamic pose with her gaze travelling to something outside the picture plane. Like the Mona Lisa her expression is both complex and mysterious. Da Vinci places her in an inky black background then picks the shade up again with her hair tie and necklace. The over-sized hand stroking the fur of the weasel draws you in by its pronounced gesture. The stoat is a symbol of fertility or pregnancy which adds another layer of intrigue to the painting. Lady with an Ermine demonstrates Leonardo’s mastery of paint and portraiture revealing the beauty of his sitter but eluding to a larger history.
Goya depicts actual events with unflinching drama and gruesome detail in The Third of May. In the painting: faceless Napoleonic soldiers are executing the Spaniards who participated in an uprising the day previous and the bodies are piling up sparing no one not even a friar. Even though the central figure would be far too tall if he stood from his kneeling position we can forgive Goya’s artistic licence to cement his allegory. His martyrdom is complete in gesture and illumination. The painting hangs in the Prado beside its companion The Second of May. We are left stunned by their reality and horrified by our misdeeds. Goya famously depicted The Disasters of War in a series of horrific etchings that serve as a cautionary tale that reminds us that war can bring out the worst in mankind. It is that ugly mirror that Goya can reveal to us all that cements not only his greatness but his importance as an artist.
By all accounts we shouldn’t still have Leonardo’s Last Supper with us. You can find it at the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. The painting began to deteriorate in his own lifetime. Da Vinci tried an experimental method of painting oil paint and tempera directly on the dry wall as opposed to the common fresco method that was used at the time. The wall itself can be found in a dining hall where the monks ate their meals directly on the other side of the kitchen. The moisture and fluctuating temperatures caused by the kitchen started to play havoc on the painting immediately after its completion. The condition was so bad that by 1692 no one thought twice about cutting a doorway through the wall removing Christ’s feet amongst other things. If the natural deterioration wasn’t bad enough, the convent was hit by a bomb during World War II destroying the other walls of the dining hall exposing the painting to the outside elements. It remained vulnerable to the weather for months. Disastrous attempts at restoration over the centuries also added to its appalling appearance. Finally in 1978 a team was committed to bringing it back to its former glory. The project took 21 years and many of the lost details have now been filled in using watercolours. The Last Supper is one of the most iconic images in human history. Da Vinci’s composition utilizes the linear perspective of the room in which it is painted creating a vanishing point behind Christ’s head accentuated by a window that forms a halo. Along with the use of perspective, Da Vinci directs our eye using all the body language and hand gestures motioning toward the focal point of Christ. Da Vinci also broke from tradition by placing Judas on the same side of the table as the rest of the apostles to complete his composition proving again his innovation.
Since I started this series of posts I would have to say this one has been the hardest to call. The artist in me leans more towards Goya, but the art historian in me can’t deny the contributions of Leonardo. Goya leaves me gob-smacked every time but then I look at the expression of miss Gallerani and am drawn into her visage. Ultimately, the scarcity of Da Vinci’s works only make them more desirable. The fact he could do so much with so little to show, just reconfirms his genius.
Winner: Da Vinci
related: W.T.G.A.: Duchamp vs Da Vinci