10 Most Famous Masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most influential artists during the Renaissance period (14th century to 17th century). Many have described the Italian painter as a genius whose works changed the face of international arts. Most of his oeuvres are still very popular in recent times. In this article, we will take a look at 10 of da Vinci’s most iconic arts.
The Vitruvian Man
First on our list is the “Vitruvian Man”. Carmen C. Bambach, an American art historian, has described his piece of art as the most iconic picture which depicts Western civilization and art in general. This masterpiece was influenced by the works of ancient Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius (c. 80 BC – c. 15 BC). The Italian artist came up with this work to show the proportion of the ideal human figure as described by the aforementioned Roman scholar.
The art, which was completed around 1490, portrays an image of a male human in two different positions. The human figure, whose legs and arms are set apart simultaneously, is trapped in a circle and a square. It also contained a number of texts at both the top and bottom of the male-like figure.
In the text at the top of the drawing, da Vinci stated that: “Vitruvius, the architect, says in his architectural work that the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner, that is 4 fingers make a palm, 4 palms make a foot…”.
He further stated that “If you open your legs enough that your head is lowered by 1/14 of your height and raise your arms enough that your extended fingers touch the line of the top of your head, let you know that the center of the ends of the open limbs will be the navel, and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle”.
At the bottom, he explained that “The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of the man. From the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of the man. From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of the man”.
Da Vinci concluded by saying that “The distances from the chin to the nose and the hairline and the eyebrows are equal to the ears and one-third of the face”.
Did you know?
- Though it is considered as one of Leonardo’s most popular works, the artist never intended to display it to the public.
- The drawing was first acquired by Francesco Melzi, a student of the Italian artist.
- In 1822, it was purchased by the Gallerie dell’Accademia, an art center located in Venice, Italy.
- To commemorate Leonardo’s death in 2019, the Louvre Museum borrowed the art from the Venice-based museum.
- The Vitruvian Man drawing is sometimes referred to as the “Canon of Proportions”.
Followed closely is the Mona Lisa, which is arguably the most famous artwork in history. da Vinci started this painting in 1503. It portrays the image of Lisa Gherardini, spouse of renowned Florentine business tycoon Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. It is said that the businessman wanted a picture of his wife which led him to contact Leonardo to produce an image of his sweetheart. The half-length portrait, whose original dimension was 30 inches by 21 inches, was completed around 1517.
The masterpiece was painted on a unique white poplar panel. Though it was sponsored by Giocondo, the painting never got to the family. After da Vinci’s death, the painting was purchased by Francis I, King of France. It later became a national treasure and spent some period in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom. It has since been kept at the Louvre Museum in France, though it was sent to a number of locations during the Second World War.
In the 1800s, the artwork became very popular in Europe. In 1962, it was disclosed that the painting had an insurance value of US$100 million, which became the highest in the world and earned it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Record.
The stealing of the Mona Lisa
The artwork gained international recognition after it was stolen in 1911 by Italian artist and museum worker Vincenzo Peruggia. According to many accounts, Peruggia, who helped to construct the glass case for the painting, stole the artwork out of patriotism. According to him, he was returning the painting to its natural home, Italy.
The missing artwork received lots of coverage from the media. After keeping it for over 20 months, Peruggia decided to sell the work to museum curator Giovanni Poggi. It was during this business transaction that Peruggia was apprehended by law enforcers. He was initially given a seven-month jail term but was released having spent almost the same time behind bars during the investigation.
The use of the artwork in other media
Centuries after it was commissioned, the Mona Lisa work has gained the reputation as one of the most used arts in recent times. It inspired Max von Schillings’ 1915 opera of similar name. It was also the subject of American singer Nat King Cole’s 1950 song “Mona Lisa” and the Géza von Bolváry-directed film “The Theft of the Mona Lisa”.
In 2020, Nigerian artistes Sarz and Lojay used the name as the title of their hit song. They featured American singer Chris Brown in the remix version.
Just how influential has the Mona Lisa being?
The Mona Lisa has had a great influence on some renowned artists. Fellow Renaissance painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483—1520), better known as Raphael, adopted the format of this work in some of his paintings. Other artists such as Dominic Pangborn, Orlando Quevedo, and Romero Britto have all produced a version of this masterpiece.
Read More: 10 Most Famous Artists from the Renaissance Period
The Virgin of the Rocks
The Madonna of the Rocks, better known as the Virgin of the Rocks, is one of the well-known religious paintings by da Vinci. It depicts a picture of child Jesus, with the Virgin Mary, alongside the angel Urie and an infant John the Baptist. The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned it for the San Francesco Grande in Milan, Italy.
The Italian painter produced two versions of this work. The first form, which is widely considered as the original, measures around 199 cm by 122 cm. It was completed in 1486 and has been exhibited at France’s Louvre Museum. Many historians have described this work as the perfect example of the “sfumato” style.
In 1495, Leonardo started working on the second version of this art. It took him close to a decade to complete this work which measures around 74.6 inches by 47.25 inches. It was also said that Leonardo received a little help from his assistants to complete this work. Over the years, this artwork has been housed at the National Gallery in London, England.
How has this work influenced others?
Regarded as one of the finest artworks during the Renaissance period, the “Virgin of the Rocks” has influenced many artists over the years. Author Angela Ottino della Chiesa stated that this work had an impact on Bernardino Luini’s “the Holy Family and St. John” painting.
The writer was of the opinion that renowned painter Joos van Cleve used this masterpiece for his work titled “Holy Infants Embracing”.
This work is very popular among Christians, especially the Catholic Church. It depicts the last time Jesus Christ dined with his disciples before his crucifixion. The Vinci-born artist began this painting around 1495 and completed it three years later.
The 181 inches by 346 inches painting was made with materials like mastic, egg tempera on a glue gesso, and pitch. It is considered as Leonardo’s second largest work and could be seen in the dining room of the Santa Maria delle Grazie located in the Italian city of Milan.
Some interesting facts about the work
- The painting was commissioned by Ludovico Maria Sforza who ruled as the Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499. Sforza also served as Leonardo’s patron.
- The work has been recreated by other renowned artists like Cesare da Sesto, Andrea Solari, and Giampietrino.
- The original work has been restored many times. Italian painter Michelangelo Bellotti attempted to revive the painting in 1726 before Mauro Pellicioli gave it a little polish during the Second World War.
- In recent years, the art has been featured in some popular films and television shows such as 1981’s “History of the World, Part I” and the Canadian series titled “Murdoch Mysteries”.
- Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, argued that there are some musical notes hidden in the work. He produced a melody from the perceived notes in 2007.
Over the years, the Salvator Mundi (i.e. Savior of the World) has gained the reputation as one of the most controversial paintings in history. It has gained this description because it is believed that the current work had lost its originality. According to researchers, Leonardo’s 1510 work was lost or destroyed somewhere in the 1600s. Although some artists and historians have claimed that the missing work had been recovered, many have denied this rumor.
However, the painting has been recreated by some group of professionals. Copies of this masterpiece have been auctioned at many centers over the years. In 2017, it became the most expensive artwork sold at an auction, after it was bought for a sum of $450.3 million by Saudi Arabian government official Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud.
In 2019, it was reported that the painting was hung in the yacht of Mohammad bin Salman, the Prime Minister and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It was also the subject of Andreas Koefoed’s 2021 documentary titled “The Lost Leonardo”.
What did the Salvator Mundi look like?
Leonardo’s original work measured around 45.4 cm by 65.6 cm. The oil painting was made on a walnut panel. It depicted a half-portrait of what is believed to be Jesus Christ. In the painting, the Christ-like figure is dressed in a Renaissance robe and conducting a benediction. He’s also seen with a crystal ball in his left hand.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
As the name suggests, this artwork shows images of the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Saint Anne, who’s believed to be the mother of Mary. On a lighter note, this art is considered as a “family reunion” as Baby Jesus is seen spending some time with his mother and maternal grandmother. In the picture, the Child Jesus is seen handling a lamb while his mother tries to move him away. This, according to many religious figures, symbolizes the “Passion”.
It is believed that the King of France, Louis XII commissioned da Vinci to execute this artwork. It is likely that the Italian painter started working on the 51-inches-by-66.3-inches painting in 1501 and completed in 1519.
It is also said that Leonardo produced a cartoon copy of the work before coming up with the original painting. This historical work has been kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
Ginevra de’ Benci
Leonardo Da Vinci completed this work when he was in his 20s. This masterpiece depicts the image of Ginevra de’ Benci (1457–1521), a Florentine aristocrat. It is believed that the work was to commemorate the lady who got married at age 16. The painter was said to be a close pal of Ginevra’s brother Giovanni.
The artwork was executed on a 38.1 cm × 37 panel and has been kept at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This painting is Da Vinci’s first work to go on public display in the Western part of the world. During this painting, he adopted some unconventional techniques such as the three-quarter view which he used in his subsequent works including the “Mona Lisa”.
In recent years, it was reported that parts of the artwork, especially the hands and arms of the sitter, have been damaged. In the 20th Century, Australian artist Susan Dorothea White tried to fix the damaged portion.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Self Portrait, also referred to as the “portrait of a man in red chalk”, is the painter’s only self-portrait work that he left behind. It is believed that da Vinci painted this picture when he was about 60 years old. However, some scholars including Martin Kemp, and Carlo Pedretti have raised question marks about the person in the work, claiming that it doesn’t show the real identity of the iconic painter.
He created this 33.3 cm by 21.6 cm artwork using red chalk. With long curly hair and beard, Leonardo portrayed himself as a prophet or philosopher. In this work, he deployed the three-quarter view technique which was used in most of his works.
It was purchased by the King of Sardinia, Carlo Alberto, in 1839. The drawing has since been kept at the Royal Library in Turin, Italy.
Other works influenced by da Vinci’s Self Portrait
This image has given other artists a fair idea of how Leonardo looked. In the 1500s, one of his pupils named Francesco Melzi, produced an image of the famous Italian painter using red chalk. Other artists such as Angelica Kauffman, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and François-Guillaume Ménageot also relied on this drawing to produce an image of da Vinci in some of their works.
Lady with an Ermine
Like the Ginevra de’ Benci, this painting also shows an image of a famous Italian lady. The said woman is believed to be Cecilia Gallerani (1473 – 1536), one of the numerous partners of Ludovico Sforza who ruled as the Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499.
The 21 inches by 15 inches portrait painting was completed in 1491. In the work, the lady (Cecilia Gallerani) is seen cuddling an animal thought to be an ermine, though some critics have raised issues about it. According to many art historians, the use of the ermine signifies moderation and purity. The painting was attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci in the 20th Century after years of debate.
Sale of the art
In 1798, Prince Adam George Czartoryski, an offspring of Polish statesman Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and his partner Izabela Czartoryska Flemming, acquired the painting from Italy. Two years later, he included it in the art collections of the Czartoryski family in Poland. In 1939, the Nazis seized the work and kept it at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum which is located in Berlin, Germany.
The following year, Poland’s Governor General, Hans Frank, requested for the return of the painting. It was then displayed at the Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, Poland. It was later returned to the Czartoryski Museum where it stayed until 2010. Since then, the painting has been kept at Kraków’s National Museum after Adam Karol Czartoryski, a descendant of the House of Czartoryski, sold it to the Polish government for €100 million in 2016.
Head of a Woman
Nicknamed La Scapigliata (The Lady with Disheveled Hair), the Head of a Woman is regarded as a pre-work to his “Virgin of the Rocks” painting. Others have also indicated that the uncompleted artwork might be the model for the “Leda and the Swan” painting.
The art portrays the head of a woman believed to be Mary, mother of Jesus. The head of this woman is tilted while she looks on the floor. The original work was executed on a wood panel and measures around 9.7 inches by 8.3 inches.
Though there are contradictory accounts about the history of the work, it is widely believed that da Vinci was commissioned by marchioness Isabella d’Este around 1506. Isabella might have presented this work to her child Federico II who was then getting married to Margaret Paleologa.
It has been recorded that the Galleria Nazionale di Parma purchased this artwork from Gaetano Callani, an Italian sculptor and painter, in 1826. Since then, the oeuvre has been kept at the Parma-based art gallery.
Read More: 12 Most Famous Painters of all time and their Major Works
Other notable works by da Vinci
Aside from the aforementioned works, Leonardo produced other works which have gained some amount of fame in recent times. Among these historical oeuvres are the Benois Madonna, completed around 1480; the La Belle Ferronnière, which portrays the image of Lucrezia Crivelli, one of the mistresses of Ludovico Sforza; and the Saint John the Baptist, which has been displayed at the Louvre.
Leonardo da Vinci: Fast Facts
Full name: Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
Date of birth: April 15, 1452
Place of birth: Vinci, Florence
Died: May 2, 1519; Clos Lucé, Amboise, Kingdom of France
Parents: Piero da Vinci and Caterina
Education: Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio
Did you know…?
It is a known fact that much of his acclaim came from his remarkable paintings, most famous among them the Mona Lisa. Regardless, let nothing be taken away from the sheer brilliant works he produced in other disciplines, including engineering, architecture, science and sculpting. This Italian polymath produced a wide of range of works that truly exemplified the Renaissance Era. Some historians hail him as the founder of the High Renaissance.
Here are a few more interesting things about the great Italian painter:
- He was born near Vinci, located in today’s Metropolitan City of Florence in Italy.
- Leonardo da Vinci was born outside marriage. His mother, Caterina, was a lower-class woman, while his father, Piero da Vinci, was a successful notary.
- His paintings are seen by many as some of the most remarkable in Western art. The Mona Lisa is perhaps the greatest work of da Vinci.
- The Italian polymath conceived of many ideas that were way beyond his era, including flying machines, armored fighting vehicle, and solar power technology.
- A genius of a polymath, da Vinci produced works in anatomy, hydrodynamics, geology, optics, and civil engineering.
- The High Renaissance polymath had his education in Florence under the supervision of Italian goldsmith and painter Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1434-1488).
- Leonardo da Vinci spent his last three years in the court of French king Francis I. As a matter of fact, the Italian artist passed away in France, at a place called Clos Lucé in Amboise, central France.
- He never got married, and to this day, it remains unclear as to whether he had an romantic relationship with anyone, man or woman.
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