Leonardo on Creating Art as the Subject of Art

Leonardo, Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (c.1474)

I often argue that the subject of a painting is its own making and have already demonstrated this online in several hundred entries, including examples by Leonardo.1 Evidence in written commentary by artists, though, is much rarer. Nevertheless they exist even if their meaning is often misunderstood. Take, for instance, the following comment by Leonardo da Vinci.

“Painting is not only a science, it is even a divinity because it transforms the painter’s mind into something similar to the mind of God.”2

There are several ways to interpret this depending on your point-of-view. It could mean something like “good artists not only learn the craft of painting [a science] but their mind also becomes creative like God’s.” That misses Leonardo’s central point, though, that Painting itself is a divinity? How, for example, could the making of the Mona Lisa or the Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci be divinities?  

From our perspective, where every painter paints himself, the comment means: “Painting is not only a way to find wisdom [a science] but is a divinity as well [a path to God]. The artist’s mind becomes like God’s so, in painting a reflection of it, the painter allows the viewer to see a representation of God’s mind.” That is why painting is a divinity and why so many artists paint themselves as Christ, as I have often shown3; the alert viewer can find wisdom and God….even in a secular portrait.

Leonardo leaves unsaid in the quote above that every painter paints himself.  He did, however, write elsewhere that:

‘the painter’s mind should be like a mirror, which transforms itself into the color of the thing that it has as its object...’4

That does not mean that painting reflects the world. It clearly does not say that. What it does say is that the painter’s mind turns itself into the form of the object observed.5 The Mona Lisa or Ginevra de’ Benci thus reflect the painter’s mind which is like God’s. Why should anyone doubt then that the proportions of the Mona Lisa’s face match Leonardo’s precisely or that the Mona Lisa represents an alter ego of Leonardo?6 His words imply that they would. This also explains why he chose to paint Ginevra de’ Benci and Cecilia Gallerani, his two most famous female sitters. Both women were poets, a little-known fact too unlikely to be coincidence that takes on added importance once you know that the sitter reflects the artist’s mind.7 They represent Leonardo’s own creative and androgynous mind which at the moment of creation becomes like God’s.

It is almost unnecessary to add that Leonardo cited the phrase – every painter paints himself -  at least seven times in his writings, sometimes positively, sometimes as an inevitable tendency in artists to guard against.8 Either way, the phrase and the concept were central to his own thinking, to art and to most true artists of his day.  

1. See Leonardo's Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and Storm over the Alps

2. L. Venturi, History of Art Criticism, trans. C. Mariott (New York: Dutton) 1936, p. 91, cited in Maurice Chernowitz, Proust and Painting (New York: International University Press) 1945, pp. 112-3

3. See examples under the theme Artist as Christ.

4. Cited in Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (The University of Chicago Press) 1983, p.46-7

5. The color of the thing in this context means the painted object’s form or idea.

6. See Leonardo's Mona Lisa.

7. It has long been known that Ginevra de’ Benci was a poetess though the fact was usually considered unimportant. It was only in 1995 that Garrard pointed out the pictorial references to Ginevra’s status as a poet; it was also in the 1990’s that Shearman revealed that Cecilia Gallerani was a poetess as well though he saw no link between the two sitters. Unlike Ginevra, Gallerani’s poetic activity has rarely been mentioned since. John Shearman, Only Connect....., Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1992, p. 120. Mary Garrard,  “Leonardo da Vinci and Creative Female Nature” in Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (eds.) Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, pp. 326-53

8. Martin Kemp, “ ‘Ogni Dipintore Dipinge Se’: A Neoplatonic Echo in Leonardo’s Art Theory?” in Cultural Aspects of the Italian Renaissance: Essays in Honour of Paul Oskar Kristeller, ed. Cecil H. Clough (Manchester University Press) 1976, pp. 311-2. The seven references to figures resembling their masters are: Trat. 137 (B.N.2038, f.27r; McMahon 276), Trat. 105 (MS A, f.23r; Mcmahon 85), Trat. 108 (McMahon 86), Trat. 109 (Libro A, 28; McMahon 45), Trat. 186 (Libro A, 37; McMahon 273), Trat. 282 (Libro A, 28; McMahon 438) and Trat. 296 (Libro A, 15; McMahon 437). ‘The greatest defect in painters’: Trat. 108 (McMahon 86). Trattato references are to H. Ludwig, Leonardo da Vinci. Das Buch von der Malerei, Vienna, 2 vols., 1882. McMahon numbers refer to A.P.McMahon, Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci, 2 vols. (Princeton University Press) 1956. For Libro A, see C. Pedretti, Leonardo da Vinci on Painting: a Lost Book (Libro A), London, 1965.

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