Although many people seem to identify Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) these days for his brilliant scientific mind and prescient engineering designs, I have always thought of him first and foremost as a great artist. His output as a painter was relatively little, perhaps no more than fifteen completed or partially completed paintings, especially compared to his great Italian Renaissance contemporaries, Michelangelo and Raphael. Yet Leonardo captured something so unique in his paintings and drawings (which are much more numerous), that usually upon seeing one of his pieces the observer can easily recognize it as being from the hand of Leonardo. Everyone knows the Mona Lisa, or The Last Supper, but his other works are not as well known, at least by most people who have not studied him. Yet all his known works are quickly recognizable as his.
It is hard to describe what makes his works so magical. There is a certain ethereal, almost mystical quality inherent in them. Whatever the “it” was that he had, no other artist has ever been able reproduce it. Often it can be difficult to distinguish certain artists from their contemporaries (for instance Titian and his imitators), or those who came after in imitation; but not Leonardo. His genius was so unique and powerful that no one during his time or after has been able to even come close to what he created.
What is most powerful, at least for me, is the beauty in his paintings. It is a strange beauty, but a beauty nonetheless. It is the sort of beauty that cannot be quantified (if ever beauty can). When I see something like the drawing above, it somehow captures for me those allusive feelings that come with love. Perhaps this is how I see the beloved: alluring, charming, and ultimately elusive. Love is not an intellectual, concrete thing for me; no, it is passionate, explosive, even strange. It is more like an ocean that can be serenely calm at one moment and unpredictably tempestuous the next. It is certainly hard to understand. A poem, a piece of music, or a painting more than any intellectual treatise, or anything else for that matter, can best capture the magical power of love for me.
But back to Leonardo. For some reason I have always loved this drawing. Most likely it was a sketch for one of his Madonna paintings. It is certainly one of his more famous drawings. However, despite its likely religious intentions, I feel it stands alone as beautiful female depiction. It has a certain power over me. What this exact power is, is hard to describe, if not impossible. But it seems other worldly, evocative, even mystical. Since in the general scheme of things, as far as how the one sex sees the others, most would agree that men are mysterious (women love mysterious men), women are evocative (men love the alluring chase) and evocativeness is one of the ways I would characterize this drawing. There is a gentle harmony and lyricism in her features, made even more evocative by the shadowy background, the wisps of hair flowing into the nothingness behind her, her strange smile. There is almost a coyness, a coquettishness in her downward glance. Who is she, what is she smiling at, why is she smiling? Often these might be questions I ask myself when I am drawn into the romantic mysteries of a new love interest.
Leonardo is not known for any type of feminine erotic portraits (he was most likely homosexual), but in many ways he was often able to capture the essence of the feminine, the way the feminine strikes the masculine observer (how men may view it). This drawing is not a complete portrait and perhaps in its incompleteness lies the power: men always find the chase, the conquest of a woman to be somewhat incomplete. Will there be another night of passion, will there be love, what does the future hold? He is not known for sensuality (that would be more the realm of his contemporary Botticelli); yet there is something sensual about this drawing. It often reminds me, especially when I was younger, of how I would look at different girls. For most young men, especially as teens and into the their early twenties, inexperienced and afraid of these desired creatures called girls, they can seem like such impossible to obtain objects of desire. We idealize them; we romanticize them; we want them but they can so difficult to have. It is almost as if Leonardo had captured not so much the essence of the feminine itself, but the essence of how a man looks at the feminine. When I see this portrait, I see all those girls I idealized when I was younger, before the raw sensuality and realism of sexuality made me realize that women are much more than objects of idealized romanticism, but rather creatures of flesh and blood such as myself.
Yet despite all this speculation, nothing changes that fact that, at least for me, this is one of the most evocative, alluring and enchanting drawings I have ever seen. It is a rare and supreme example of pure beauty. It is over five hundred years old, I have been looking at it for decades, and it never gets old for me.