I must write a 750-word discussion that considers issues involved with physical and cultural context, focusing on two portraits by Leonardo da Vinci (details on image above) as displayed at an...

I must write a 750-word discussion that considers issues involved with physical and cultural context, focusing on two portraits by Leonardo da Vinci (details on image above) as displayed at an exhibition at the National Gallery London.

Questions to consider are:

  • What kind of narrative is being created by the arrangement of the portraits?
  • How might the viewer experience this part of the exhibit?
  • What other associated circumstances might also be factors?
  • Would you arrange them this way?
  • Why or why not? What are some other ways in which the images could have been arranged?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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If, as the inimitable Michelangelo claimed that "good painting is a music and a melody which intellect only can appreciate," then, indeed, there is profundity to Leonardo da Vinci's perspective of, in his own words,

That figure is most praiseworthy which, by its action best expresses the passions of the soul. 

Certainly, da Vinci, an arch-exponent of the High-Renaissance, attained perfection with his works. His subtleties of expression that convey emotion are meticulous in their sense of atmosphere, disposition, and gesture. Leonardo is the creative thinker, rather than so much the skilled artisan.

La Belle Ferronnière

  • Also known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman, there is a certain mystery established with this painting. That the woman is looking, not at the artist, but elsewhere with an indefinable expression that seems to contain some heated feeling underscores da Vinci's concept of having "the passions of the soul" appear in the portrait.
  • This expression of passion and a lack of innocence is in line with the belief that the subject is one of the mistresses of a nobleman; namely, Lodovico 'il Moro' Sforza, Duke of Milan. The black background expresses the Italian style of portraiture of the day.
  • Arrangement of the subject conforms to the standards of the High Renaissance which demanded harmony and balance, only calm and dignified movement, and always a focal point for the viewer. Perhaps, then, daVinci expresses his individuality as an artist with his subject's eyes which convey more emotion than would be considered "calm."

Lady with an Ermine

  • The narrative of this portrait contains more than that of the other woman also wearing a jewel on her forehead. For one thing, the subject of this portrait is not a noblewomen. Also, in this painting, there is symbolism attached to purity with the ermine, or stoat, in its winter coat because the animal was known for maintaining its whiteness by risking capture rather than retreating into a dirty lair when threatened. Another idea is one that proposed by authorities:

Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on her name because the Ancient Greek term for ermine, or other weasel-like species of animals, is galê (γαλῆ) or galeê (γαλέη)

  • The arrangement of this subject is interesting, as again the three-fourths study is used. The youthful subject, who seems more innocent than the previous subject, appears to be distracted by someone else and listening to this person. Above all, although this painting was done during the same time period, da Vinci demonstrates much more dimension in this painting with his stronger use of light and contours on the ermine and the young woman's upper body which portrayed more than in the previous painting. In addition, there is a demonstration of the scientific interests of Leonardo as the subjects hand in the foreground is foreshortened (as is apparent so often in photographs) as it appears too large. His skillful depiction of the details in the hand, such as the contour of the fingernails, the lines on the knuckles, and the tendons of the flexed index finger provide evidence of da Vinci's study of anatomy.

As a final note, it is important to consider that because these two painting are portraits, da Vinci evinces more restraint in these works than in some of his others because there were certain standards to which he was expected to adhere. Therefore, the question of how one would arrange these portraits seems purely whimsical and left up to the student's imagination.

Additional Source:  The Illustrated Library of Art. New York: Portland House,                                 1986. Print

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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With the question about the physical arrangement (layout) of the paintings in the gallery, there are a couple of points that can, perhaps, be added.

1. These two paintings were completed in nearly the same time period: The Lady with an Ermine (1489-1496) and La Belle Ferronniere (1490-1496), so this is probably why they are displayed together.

2. That they were painted in a similar time period raises the question as to whether the two women knew each other. If so, this might explain the expression on the noblewoman with the jewel on her forehead who looks with something rather dark in her expression. And, her portrait is placed so that it looks at the other. Interestingly, the other woman, the one with the ermine, whose dress is much simpler that the red one of the noblewoman, indicates that she is not a noblewoman. This young woman looks away, too, as those she does not wish to make eye contact with the noblewoman.  Is there, perhaps, some embarrassment? or peevishness on her part?

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