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Yale’s Intriguing “Leonardo” Examination Gets a Grade of “Incomplete”: Few Leonardos, Many Photos

Road Trip!

That was my enthusiastic response to the press release and the advance publicity for the Yale Art Gallery’s summer exhibition, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio (to Oct. 7). Since another Leonardo “discovery” has been much in the news of late (including this recent twist, questioning its authorship), the show has more topicality than the museum’s chief curator Laurence Kanter might have imagined when he began planning it.

Laurence Kanter, chief curator, Yale University Art Gallery

Unfortunately, the exhibition’s compelling catalogue, which “seek[s] to recalibrate the arguments over attributions to Leonardo’s early career by restoring the primacy of visual evidence [emphasis added],” set me up for a letdown: The “visual evidence” didn’t sufficiently live up to the promise of the show’s premise—that the hand of the young, already demonstrably brilliant Leonardo da Vinci can be found in paintings that have been attributed to his mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio, or to Leonardo’s less gifted fellow student and imitator, Lorenzo di Credi.

Although the show honed my eye and sharpened my interpretive skills, helping me to decipher the artistic subtleties and the scientifically correct optics that make a Leonardo a Leonardo, CultureGrrl reluctantly gives Yale’s exhibition a grade of “Incomplete”: It relies too heavily on photo reproductions, rather than works directly from Leonardo’s hand.

Photographs (six full-scale, two enlargements) account for eight of the 21 featured works. Of the 13 original works on display, two came from Yale’s own Jarves Collection. Only one is deemed to be entirely by Leonardo (a reattribution by Kanter) and only two others are said to show evidence of having being painted, in part, by the master. The remainder of the show consists of works by Verrocchio and contemporaries, providing context.

The highlight—a small showstopper in the first gallery—is the work that Kanter deems to be entirely by Leonardo. The Louvre had previously ascribed it to Lorenzo:

“The Annunciation,” 1475-79, oil on panel, Musée du Louvre
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Details in “The Annunciation” that screamed “Leonardo!” to Kanter included: “the illusion of different textures of cloth, feathers, wood, and stone—optical effects not matched anywhere in Florentine painting up to this time.”

Here are the meticulously rendered wing feathers and hair curls of the angel:

Photo be Lee Rosenbaum

And here is the pensive Virgin’s gracefully bowed head and delicate hands, folded “in a gesture of humility,” in the words of the label:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, Walter Isaacson, relying on guidance from a number of Leonardo experts in researching his best-selling 2017 biography of the artist, describes “The Annunciation” as seriously flawed, but acknowledges that “even the mistakes, which came from innovating and experimenting, heralded his genius.”

Based on the Yale curator’s scholarship, the Louvre, which owns the painting, has changed its label from Lorenzo to Leonardo, as Kanter told me when I asked him how other experts have reacted to his leaps of imagination, informed by close looking and connoisseurship.

The Paris museum will display “The Annunciation” in autumn 2019, as part of its major Leonardo exhibition, he said. Only time (and scholarly debate) will tell if Kanter’s arguments and insights will gain traction and spark further reconsiderations of authorship. The show’s introductory wall text acknowledges that the early Leonardo, as discerned in paintings made while he and other young artists were working in Verrocchio’s studio, is a “virtually unknown period of [his] career.”

This “miniature masterpiece” (as described by Kanter in his catalogue essay) was one of three small narrative panels that originally stood in the predella beneath this altarpiece, which is now located in the cathedral of Pistoia (near Florence):

Photo mural of the “Madonna di Piazza” altarpiece

For this show, “The Annunciation” was reunited with the Worcester (MA) Art Museum’s “A Miracle of Saint Donatus,” for only the second time since their dispersal. “The third panel has not yet been found,” the wall text tells us.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo,” ca. 1475–85, Worcester Art Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Kanter’s sighting of this oil-on-panel in Worcester, more than 20 years ago, was the initial impetus for the current show. Colleagues at the Worcester Museum, as well as at the Louvre and the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, moved the scholarly ball down the field, leading to what the Yale Art Gallery’s former director, Jock Reynolds (who stepped down June 30), called (in the show’s press release), “this controversial and compelling exhibition and publication.”

While the show leads from strength in the first gallery, it weakens in the last gallery, with an eyebrow-raising line-up of reproductions that are intended to serve as stand-ins for three key works:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The cover image for the show’s catalogue is a detail from the painting reproduced above on the right—Verrocchio’s and Leonardo’s “Virgin with the Seated Child,” ca. 1468–70, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. I can think of only one other museum exhibition where the work featured on the cover was not actually in the show. (In that case, the lender had a last-minute change of heart.)

Here’s the Yale show’s catalogue cover:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I can understand why a small museum, however distinguished in its scholarship, may have a hard time wrangling examples from the small (still speculative) body of Leonardo’s early works. But that doesn’t justify padding a museum show with a plethora of photo murals. Like the guard below, I spent too much time gazing at reproductions. Not long into the show, I started feeling foolish for trying to examine and interpret lifeless copies with the same critical attention that I’d apply to vibrant originals.

The glare from the museum’s spotlights, impeding vision (and adding glare to my own photos), made matters worse:

Reproduction of Verrocchio’s and Leonardo’s “The Baptism of Christ,” ca. 1470-75, Gallerie degli Uffizi
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In response to my query regarding his over-reliance on reproductions, Kanter explained that the exhibition “was initially timed to precede a large Verrocchio exhibition in Washington, so that European loans could be shared: No lender would permit their works to travel twice. At the last minute, Washington postponed their show by one year, taking all the loans with them. We could not reschedule without losing the Louvre loan.”

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was one high-profile lender that did contribute to the show, dispatching this rare (if it is, in fact, by Verrocchio) marble, which Kanter believes is “clearly by two different artists…the better of whom [responsible for the figure of the Virgin and the head of the angel in the background] is likely to have been Verrocchio”:

Verrocchio and workshop(?), “Virgin and Child with an Angel,” ca. 1475–85, marble
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To my eye, the Verrocchio standout in the show was this terracotta, which was cast in a mold and then enhanced with “thick slabs of clay…added by hand and vigorously modeled to form the draperies and the animated curls of the hair, while the delicate features of the face were carved into the clay surface to refine their expressive character,” according to its label. (The label ascribes this “Bust of Christ” to Verrocchio, but acknowledges some ambiguity as to whether it was by him or a product of others his studio.)

Verrocchio, “Bust of Christ,” ca. 1470–83, polychromed terracotta, private collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To see one of Verrocchio’s most celebrated works, you’ve got to rely on yet another photo mural:

Photo mural of Verrocchio, “Christ and Saint Thomas,” bronze, Orsanmichele, Florence
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The biggest lender, with four works in the show, is a private collection unknown to me—the Alana Collection of Newark, DE, which currently contains “over 350 Italian paintings ranging from the 13th to 18th centuries, but also sculpture, manuscript illuminations, antiquities,” as Kanter informed me, in response to my query. He confirmed that the collection is “owned by Alvaro Saieh, a South American financier” (as it had been described four years ago in the NY Times).

The Alana loans include this unusually well-preserved Verrocchio, “Virgin and Child,” which has “never before been exhibited publicly; even specialists have had only limited access to it until now,” according to its label. To me, it’s notable for the mother and infant’s stolid expressions and the complete lack of communication between them:

Verrocchio, “Virgin and Child,” ca. 1465, tempera on panel, Alana Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We can only hope that Yale has established that Saieh (if he is indeed still the owner) has no imminent plans to monetize his loans, with their value enhanced by the university’s imprimatur.

A recurrent theme in the show is that if a passage in a painting from Verrocchio’s studio is brilliant, it’s probably by Leonardo; if it’s good, it’s probably Verrocchio (more acclaimed as a sculptor than as a painter); if it’s barely competent, give it to Lorenzo di Credi, the show’s fall guy.

The label for another Alana picture unfavorably compares Lorenzo’s “bright stripes of color” on the angel’s wings in his “Annunciation” to the “carefully studied feathers” in Leonardo’s version of the subject (as seen near the top of this post). The label also notes that Lorenzo’s painting is devoid of the Leonardo’s “psychological subtlety”:

Lorenzo di Credi, “The Annunciation,” ca. 1500, oil on panel
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Given the show’s dismissive treatment of this Lorenzo painting, I was surprised to see it featured as the signature image at the top of last week’s online version of the Wall Street Journal‘s review by Cammy Brothers. There was no identification of the artist in the WSJ’s caption, leaving the false impression that it came from the “Master’s Hand” of the headline:

Fortunately, the Lorenzo image didn’t appear in the hardcopy version of the review, but neither version included the Leonardo “Annunciation”—the only painting in the show attributed entirely to the master.

Even more problematic was a gaffe in Brothers’ description of the third work in the show that Kanter says shows evidence of Leonardo’s hand—a “cassone” painting—one that originally decorated the side of an upperclass bride’s trousseau chest.

This is one of a pair, the second of which “was traveling in Japan when our show opened,” as Kanter told me:

Leonardo and collaborator, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus,” ca. 1472–73, Musée Jacquemart-André, Institut de France, Paris
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a sentence that may be corrected by the time you read this, Brothers wrote (emphasis added): “Kanter sees Leonardo in the horses and carriage on the right half of the panel, but not the left.” (Actually, it’s the exact opposite, as you’ll see below.) Brothers added: “While the explanations in the wall texts are detailed, following [Kanter’s] logic and his eye would almost require him to stand next to every visitor”…

…or at least would require that visitors pay careful attention to his informative labels, including this one about the painting above:

The superbly drawn horses pulling the processional cart at the left strain forward with all four feet on the ground, muscles distended and eyes starting. The less competently portrayed horses pulling the cart at the right are cantering lightly, as if their burden were weightless [emphasis added].

Here are the equines on the left that the curator ascribes to Leonardo…

…and here are the more sprightly ones on the right, which had too much canter for Kanter:

We can only conclude that the curator’s habit of “close looking” didn’t extend to Brothers’ WSJ article, or he would have gotten it corrected online by now (a week after publication). If a reviewer/professor finds Kanter’s wonky exhibition occasionally hard to follow, I suspect it may have the same effect on members of the general public.

Perhaps Yale’s groundbreaking but incomplete show is best appreciated as an outline or first draft for a more comprehensive survey at an institution with hefty borrowing power. That said, I’ve rarely seen a show that focuses so incisively and engrossingly on connoisseurship—not on the attribution of just one work, but of a body of related works by a supremely important artist.

In light of Kanter’s expert elucidation of the traits that distinguish authentic Leonardos, I felt obliged to ask for his take on the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction:

Do you believe “Salvator Mundi” is by Leonardo and why (or why not)?

I got the answer I expected (the same that I previously got from Metropolitan Museum curator Carmen Bambach):

No comment.

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