Behold, The Power of Blue

This morning I have been reading with great interest reports about the unveiling of the recently-restored Leonardo da Vinci painting “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” at The Louvre in Paris. Leonardo has been in the news a great deal lately; indeed, I cannot recall a time when there was so much fascinating, legitimate (i.e., non-Dan-Brown-related) news about the Renaissance master in the headlines. And I am beginning, if only slightly, to rethink some of my views on him, in part because of his surprising use of the color blue.

In addition to today’s reporting on the “St. Anne” from Paris, recently there have been multiple stories about other Leonardo works. Much of these seem fortuitously tied to the fact that there have been two major exhibitions of late: the first in London from November to February, and the second which opens in Paris today, and continues until summer. There have been stories about Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine”, which traveled to the London show; the astonishing restoration of the Madrid version of “La Gioconda” aka the “Mona Lisa” ahead of its trip to the Paris show, which I blogged about; and the very exciting possibility I shared with you that the remnants of Leonardo’s lost fresco “The Battle of Anghiari” may have been rediscovered in Florence, hidden behind a wall.

As reported in many of the articles on the “St. Anne” painting, one of the first visitors to the Leonardo exhibition at The Louvre is quoted as being shocked by the brightness of the blues used by Leonardo. This is presumably as a result of having become accustomed, as indeed most of us have been, to thinking of his work as dark and muddled. “Now you have that same feeling as when you enter Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel. Look at the blue!”, this visitor reportedly exclaimed. A similar reaction occurred when the contemporary copy of the Mona Lisa in Madrid, which experts believe was painted by one of Leonardo’s assistants side-by-side with the master in order to study his technique, was cleaned of layers of black overpaint and darkened varnish, to reveal the bright colors beloved by Italians of the Renaissance and beyond.

It is interesting to consider the possibility that Leonardo loved color as much as he loved light and shade, though perhaps not in the way that most of his fellow Italians did at the time he was working. On a common-sense level, we have to recognize that Renaissance Italians loved bright, often gaudy colors. We see this in how they decorated everything from their public and private buildings, to their everyday household items such as tin-glazed dinnerware, to how they dressed themselves in patterned silks and flashy velvets with plenty of gold jewelry. In fact one could argue that we can still see this today, in the way that some Italian fashion houses such as Missoni, Pucci, and Versace, among others, carry on this historic tradition of the Italian love for bold color.

Even when his work is cleaned and restored, Leonardo is a painter clearly more interested in subtle tonalities, than in creating a kind of bold, almost plastic quality in his work. His “St. Anne” of 1508, even if brighter and more colorful than it was before, is still nowhere near as colorful as the type of work done by many of his contemporaries. For example, take a look at this “Madonna and Child with Saints” by Lorenzo Lotto, or the young Raphael’s “Deposition from The Cross”, both of which were also painted in 1508.  Of course, Leonardo continued working on the “St. Anne” until his death, so the comparison is slightly unfair, but we do have to recognize that  the dreamy quality of the colors, bright though some of them may be, was somewhat atypical of the tastes of his day.

Given all of this media attention, expert opinion, and public scrutiny, I wonder whether future art historians will look back at this time period and consider it an important moment in both the study and critical appreciation of Leonardo’s work. This would not be the first time that such a thing took place. While Leonardo has always been treasured by those fortunate enough to own something by him, other artists have benefited from later exhibitions re-opening the assessments made on their work by their contemporaries or those who later supplanted them in popularity.

In the case of Leonardo, truth be told, I am not a fan of much of his work – nor of much of Michelangelo’s work for that matter. I recognize the contributions of these men to the development of Western art as being monumental in importance, but that does not mean that I necessarily warm to them as others do. It is a little bit like recognizing that a musician or an actor has a great deal of talent and ability, but turns you off in some other way, which would make you eschew the chance of having them over to the manse for cocktails. Intellectual honesty demands that I recognize achievement, but that does not mean I actually have to like it.

And yet now there is, as The Louvre visitor points out, that truly engaging, misty, captivating use of blue. It simply washes through the entire picture, bringing the piece a more intensely spiritual quality, almost like the effect when incense is used at mass, and the sanctuary becomes temporarily clouded in smoke. It is really something to see this, after so many years of thinking that Leonardo was interested almost exclusively in weird and colorless things.

Does this mean that I am about to become a convert to the cult of Leonardo? Not quite: there are many things about his work that I do not like, which will not change based on a re-assessment of his use of color. However one does have to recognize that sometimes, a creative individual can indeed surprise you with their talent, just when you thought you had figured them out.

I will certainly be thinking and reading more about Leonardo’s work, as a result not only of the many news stories about him, but also by the emergence of this surprising application of the color blue in his work – work which, in my ignorance of his palette, I had for such a long time dismissed as being unappealing, dirty, and dark.

A visitor at The Louvre admiring the newly-restored
“The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1508-1519)

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