Pop Art Superstar

Andy Warhol is a name that is synonymous with Pop Art, a visual art movement that flourished in the 1960s. Hundreds of exhibitions of Warhol’s works have taken place all over the world; this year it was Tate Modern’s turn to display his paintings. To make their exhibition different from others, Tate Modern has focused on Andy Warhol’s life as much as his work, exploring who he was as a person, not just an artist. Due to popular demand (and Covid-19 restrictions), Tate has extended the Andy Warhol exhibition to 15th November 2020.

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 6th August 1928 to Ondrej (1889-1942) and Julia (1892-1972). His parents were emigrants from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia) and his father worked as a coal miner. Ondrej and Julia’s eldest son died before they moved to America, where they had three more children: Pavol (Paul), Ján (John, 1925-2010) and Andrew.

Warhol did not have the easiest of childhoods. At eight years old, Warhol suffered from Sydenham’s chorea and spent a great deal of time in bed drawing. When Warhol was 13, Ondrej Warhola passed away in an accident and left all his savings to his youngest son, and assigned his older sons the responsibility to ensure Andy attended college. True to their word, Warhol attended the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design.

At the age of 21, Warhol moved to New York, permanently removing the “a” from the end of his surname. His mother joined him a couple of years later, remaining with him for the rest of her life. As a commercial artist, Warhol worked for magazines, such as Glamour, where he became known for his simple line drawings. 

People commented on Warhol’s ability to convey emotion in his line drawings, but Warhol was keen to develop his techniques further. He developed a “blotting” technique, which involved applying ink to paper and blotting the ink while still wet. Blotting was a rudimentary process of the silkscreen printmaking method for which he is most known.

Warhol wanted to be famous and taken seriously as an artist, but working for magazines was not going to help him achieve his goal. During the 1950s, he exhibited some of his artworks in exhibitions taking inspiration from new forms of art by other artists, for example, Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) who used a combination of paint and recognisable objects in their works.

Using stencils to aid his accuracy, Warhol started including well-known brands in his paintings, most notably Campbell’s soup. Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Can for the first time in 1962. He produced many versions of the can, including a canvas featuring 100 identical cans of beef noodle soup. Although painted by hand, Warhol used stencils to speed up the process and help him maintain accuracy. Whilst the painting may seem random in the 21st century, Warhol was trying to express a message about the importance of art and consumerism in the post-war era. It was also a reference to his childhood when a can of Campbell’s Soup was something precious. Warhol and his brothers grew up eating watered-down ketchup with salt for soup.

Warhol was pleased with the effectiveness of using stencils but wanted to speed up the process even more. He started to adopt the technique of screenprinting, which allowed him to reproduce an image onto a canvas multiple times. He discovered he could also print pre-existing photographs from magazines and newspapers in a similar way, playing around with the colours and amount of ink to create different effects.

Green Coca-Cola Bottles is an example of Warhol’s use of screenprinting. He also used acrylic paint and graphite to add some details by hand. Coca-Cola did not have the same connotations as Campbell’s Soup did to his childhood, but Warhol was trying to convey a message:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again (1975)

Using well-known images and icons helped Andy Warhol stand out and attract attention. When Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) passed away from a drug overdose, Warhol produced his Marilyn Diptych. On one canvas, Warhol printed several coloured prints of a publicity photo for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara, and on the opposite canvas, did the same in black and white. Critics have added meaning to this artwork, suggesting it is a contrast between Monroe’s public and private life, or life and death.

Throughout history, artists have employed others to do some of the work for them; Andy Warhol was no different. Warhol sent his chosen images to a professional silk screen maker with instructions on size to produce the stencils for his work. These stencils printed the image, usually in black and white, onto a canvas pre-painted by Warhol. As time went on, he began to experiment with prints in a range of colours.

White Brillo Boxes is an example of Warhol’s coloured prints. Rather than canvas, Warhol used plywood boxes made by a cabinet maker, onto which he printed the logo and packaging details of the original boxes of Brillo scouring packs. This process turned the commercial design by James Harvey (1929–65) into an artform.

Warhol believed the purpose of art was for entertainment, and he aimed to paint to please people. Unfortunately, he also upset several people with his subject matter. Occasionally, Warhol used photographs from news reports detailing suicide, violence and car crashes, resulting in a mix of reactions. Using other people’s images also got Warhol in trouble. For his Flower series, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus flowers from a 1964 copy of Modern Photography magazine and was subsequently sued by Patricia Caulfield, the photographer, for copyright infringement.

Warhol believed creating pop art was “being like a machine” because the process was mechanical and removed the artist’s personal touch from the outcome. He claimed “I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody,” meaning treat everyone equally. Warhol’s personal life, on the other hand, was far from machine-like.

Throughout his life, Warhol was uncomfortable with his physical appearance and had plastic surgery on his nose in 1957. Unhappy with the result, he experimented with fashion to transform his appearance. Self-conscious of his receding hairline, Warhol wore blond toupees, which he replaced with silver and grey ones as he got older.

During the 1950s, Warhol came out to the LGBTQ+ communities in New York, revealing his homosexuality. It was a difficult time for gay men because same-sex relationships were illegal in America. Nevertheless, Warhol got together with the poet John Giorno (1936-2019), who he met at an exhibition in 1962. Giorno became a prominent subject for Warhol’s work, particularly in his experimental film Sleep, a five-hour recording of Giorno sleeping. Not many people appreciated the film, but it was not the outcome of the project but the process that mattered most to Warhol, revealing his tender feelings towards his lover.

Warhol continued to make films with his associates until 1972. During this time, they produced over 500 unscripted films, ignoring all traditional methods of film-making. In 1963, Warhol set up an experimental studio called The Factory, which his lover at the time, Billy Name (1940-2016), decorated in silver paint and foil. Over the next few years, Warhol recorded the people who visited his studio, which he turned into a film called Screen Tests.

The people who visited The Factory, “superstars” as Warhol called them, were instructed to be themselves for the duration of the reel as though they did not know there was a camera. Although some of the “superstars” were already well-known, the film aimed to encapsulate Warhol’s maxim that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Edie Sedgwick (1943-71) was the most prominent actress in Warhol’s film, gaining success for her unique style and personality. She went on to star in more films by Warhol and other producers until her death from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Other “superstars” included Susan Sontag (1933-2004), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Bob Dylan (b.1944) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97).

Warhol’s first commercial success in the film industry was The Chelsea Girls, released in 1966. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey (b.1938), the film follows the lives of several young women who live at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Many of the actresses were Warhol’s “superstars” from the Screen Tests.

Warhol announced his retirement from painting in favour of film making with a farewell show in 1965. Nonetheless, he continued to produce printed matter, such as magazines, posters and books, as promotional materials. He also designed record covers for bands, such as The Velvet Underground and Nico. Christa Päffgen (1938-88), known by the stage name Nico, took inspiration from Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls, using the title for her debut album.

In 1967, Warhol was approached by an aspiring film writer Valerie Solanas (1936-88) who asked him to read through her script. He promised he would and did, but found it so disturbing that he pretended to have lost it when she contacted him later. Convinced Warhol had stolen her work, Solonas, later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, turned up at The Factory on 3rd June 1968 and shot him three times at close range. Warhol was rushed to hospital and declared clinically dead.

Miraculously, the doctors managed to revive Warhol, but he suffered severe damage to his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. Although they operated on him, the surgeons did not expect Warhol to live. Andy Warhol surprised them all by opening his eyes and starting the long road to recovery. One of the doctors remarked, “This man made his mind up he was going to live.”

Due to the severity of Solanas’ mental health, the judge only sentenced her to three years in prison. On her release, she stalked Warhol until caught and institutionalised. Warhol lived in fear that Solanas would attack him again and closed The Factory. He decided to pass most of his film directing to Morrissey and return to his “old art”. For a while, Warhol was a shell of his former self, or a “Cardboard Andy” as Billy Name dubbed him. Yet, when interviewed, Warhol was able to inject humour into his situation, comparing the stitches on his chest to a Yves Saint Laurent dress.

Compared to the 1960s, the 70s were a quiet decade for Warhol. He focused on several commissions for well-off patrons, including the Shah of Iran, Mick Jagger (b.1943), Liza Minnelli (b.1946), John Lennon (1940-80) and Diana Ross (b.1944). He also published a book,  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in which he expressed the idea “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Still suffering from the attempt on his life, Warhol received another blow when his mother passed away in 1972. Being a private, reticent man, Warhol did not tell anyone about her death, not even his long-term partner Jed Johnson (1948-96) who found out years later from one of Warhol’s brothers.

When not working on commissions, Warhol often asked other people for painting ideas. His art dealer suggested he paint a portrait of the most important person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Warhol liked the suggestion but insisted the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was the most important man. At the time, Mao had just received a visit from President Richard Nixon (1913-94) and sold, or forced people to buy, over a million copies of his Little Red Book

“Everybody’s asking me if I’m a Communist because I’ve done Mao. So now I’m doing hammers and sickles for communism, and skulls for fascism.” Naturally, people wondered if Warhol was a Communist but, in reality, he took inspiration from communist graffiti on walls in Italy, for example, the hammer and sickle symbols of the Soviet Union. To prove he did not affiliate with the party, Warhol painted images of skulls to represent fascism, a form of far-right dictatorial power at the opposite side of the political spectrum.

In 1975, the Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to paint a series featuring portraits of Black and Latin American drag queens and trans women. Rarely seen in fine art and not a community Warhol identified with, some people questioned the ethicality of the project. Nonetheless, Warhol took on the commission, hiring 14 models. Anselmino wanted Warhol to depict the dramatisation of gender, suggesting drag queens with 5 o’clock shadow, but Warhol deviated from the proposal to explore the glamour and personality of the models.

Most of Warhol’s models remain anonymous, but some have been named, such as American activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92). Born Malcolm Michaels Jr, Johnson self-identified as a drag queen and became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and was popular with New York’s gay and art scene. Daily attacks of racism and homophobia caused Johnson’s mental health to suffer and, after a pride parade in 1992, the police found Johnson’s body floating in the River Hudson. Initially ruled as suicide, a head wound suggested murder.

Andy Warhol’s artwork and near brush with death made him an international celebrity. During the 1970s, he spent most evenings socialising with other well-known people, which he jokingly called his “social disease”. In 1986, Warhol hosted a chat show called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which played on his celebrity status and network. Many of the guests were up and coming musicians, such as Debbie Harry (b.1945) and Grace Jones (b.1948), and the English actor (Sir) Ian McKellen (b.1939).

Debbie Harry and Grace Jones both became subjects for Warhol’s paintings in the 1980s. Now known as the lead singer of Blondie, Harry used to daydream Marilyn Monroe was her mother and was “stunned” and “humbled” when Warhol painted her portrait in the style of the one he produced of her idol. As well as Harry and Jones, Warhol painted many celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton (b.1946) and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). The latter was for a German gallery and reflected the concerns of the Cold War developing between the USA and USSR.

One of Warhol’s favourite “celebrities” to paint was the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York as a gift from France, Warhol produced a close-up portrait of the statue’s face. Rather than using a photograph of the statue, Warhol used an image of a centenary biscuit tin and included the logo “Fabis” in the painting. In the background, Warhol covered the canvas with a military camouflage print to suggest that, although the statue represents freedom, wars still waged in the world.

The Statue of Liberty had a deeper meaning for Warhol. When his parents emigrated to the United States, they landed at Ellis Island, near the location of the statue. His parents’ names are listed on the “Wall of Honour” in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Other people on the wall include Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Bob Hope (1903-2003) and Cary Grant (1904-86).

In the 1980s, Warhol experimented with his hairstyle – or wig style – creating what he called his “fright wig”. In self-portraits and photographs, the wig stands out, taking on the status of art in itself. His appearance was an icon and his hair as recognisable as his work, but his close friends knew this was only a facade for the public. In reality, Warhol was in severe pain and lived as an introverted individual. His self-portrait of 1986 reveals his gaunt face and poor health.

One of Warhol’s final works was Sixty Last Suppers (1986), which was part of a series commissioned by collector and gallerist Alexander Iolas (1907-87). Based on Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper, Warhol exceeded expectations by producing over 100 variations on the theme, making it the most extensive series of religious-themed works by an American artist.

Speaking about the work, Warhol stated, “It’s a good picture… It’s something you see all the time. You don’t think about it.” Yet, it may have held more meaning for Warhol than he let on. The image depicts a group of men, something Warhol had never painted before. Although it is a Biblical scene, Warhol produced his versions at a time when the private lives of gay men were under scrutiny. Not long before working on the Last Supper series, Warhol’s previous partner Jon Gould passed away from an AIDS-related illness; the fact that, in this scene, Jesus was only hours from his crucifixion, may not have been lost on Warhol. With rapidly declining health, Warhol knew that he too was not long for the world.

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were exhibited in Milan after which he reluctantly returned to New York for a gallbladder operation. Although a routine surgery, Warhol’s previous gunshot wound and declining health made the operation riskier – a factor that surgeons did not take into account at the time. Doctors fully expected Warhol to survive the surgery, but on 22nd February 1987 at the age of 58, Warhol passed away in his sleep from a sudden post-operative irregular heartbeat.

Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, but whilst this is an umbrella term for his work, it is not easy to categorise individual pieces. As one journalist for The Economist put it, Warhol is the “bellwether of the art market”. By focusing on his life as much as his work, Tate helped visitors to the gallery begin to understand the thought processes behind Warhol’s paintings and how he developed such a unique style. Andy Warhol’s work may not be to everybody’s taste, but he was certainly an intriguing individual. 

A Life in Drawing

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Leonardo da Vinci – attributed to Francesco Melzi

It has been 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died on 2nd May 1519, aged 67, at Amboise in central France. To mark the anniversary, the Royal Collection Trust has curated an exhibition that brings together over 200 of Leonardo’s greatest drawings. Not only are these works of art, but they served as thought processes of the superhuman polymath. With interests including painting, architecture, anatomy, engineering and botany, these sketches provide an exceptional insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind.

The first drawing featured in the exhibition is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci with long wavy hair and beard. This is the only surviving representation of the influential genius to survive today, however, it is not a self-portrait. It has been accredited to one of Leonardo’s pupils, Francesco Melzi (1493-1570) who was bequeathed all of his teacher’s drawings. Melzi kept tight hold of every scrap of paper that Leonardo had drawn on, almost as if they were relics. After his death in 1570, they were passed onto the Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608) who painstakingly mounted them all into at least two albums. By 1670, one of the albums had found its way into the hands of King Charles II (1630-85) and the drawings have remained in the Royal Collection ever since. In the early 1900s, the pictures were removed from the album, stamped with the cypher of Edward VII (1841-1910) and individually framed. There are around 550 of Leonardo’s drawings in the Collection, 200 of which have been specially selected for this exhibition.

Leonardo was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci in Florence, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant girl called Caterina. He was raised by his paternal grandfather, however, little else is known about his childhood. Leonardo was educated in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88) and, by the age of 20, was working as a painter in Florence. In 1480, Leonardo received his first big commission, the Adoration of the Magi, however, this remained unfinished by the time he moved to Milan the following year.

As a juvenile artist, Leonardo learnt how to draw using metalpoint. This was a stylus made from either lead, silver, copper or other metals. It was a laborious technique for, in order to make a mark on the paper, the surface had to be coated with a mixture of ground bone ash and glue. By the late 1490s, the method had fallen out of use across Italy.

The older drawings in the exhibition are examples of the metalpoint technique. These include a profile of a young woman wearing a cap, which may have been a preparatory study for a painting that is now lost. Leonardo also used this drawing method to practice and work out compositions before picking up a paintbrush. A sheet of paper containing a study of hands shows how Leonardo experimented with different positions before settling on the one that created the effect he was after.

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Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks, 1503-1506

In 1483, Leonardo received the commission to paint what is now known as the Virgin of the Rocks for a church in Milan. He painted two versions, one which was never installed and now resides in the Louvre in Paris, and the other that was put in place in 1508. The painting has since been moved and hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Leonardo began working on the Virgin of the Rocks by producing a number of preparatory studies. One of these, which is on display, is for the drapery of a kneeling figure. Comparing this drawing to the final painting, it can be noted that the composition changed slightly, however, the study was an experimental sketch for the pose of the angel on the right of the Virgin Mary. The drawing has been produced with a series of brushstrokes, fine hatching and cross-hatching, which was almost unique to Leonardo at the time. Being left-handed, his strokes slant at a different angle to the majority of right-handed artists.

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A horse divided by lines c.1490

During the 1480s, Leonardo entered the service of Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), the ruler of Milan. He commissioned Leonardo to design a bronze equestrian monument in honour of his father Francesco (1401-66), the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo began by studying and drawing horses in various positions, such as rearing and walking, from all angles. When satisfied with his design, he built a bigger-than-lifesize model out of clay in order to construct the mould ready for casting. Unfortunately, the bronze needed for the monument was requisitioned in order to build a canon, thus the project was suspended.

Five years later, Sforza was deposed by the French and Leonardo’s clay model was used for target practice by the troops and ultimately destroyed.

Leonardo’s drawings from this period also include designs for weapons, armour and grotesque figures. The latter deliberately distorted the ideals of beauty at the time and, perhaps, are some of the first examples of caricatures.

Before Sforza lost his position as Duke of Milan, he commissioned what would become one of Leonardo’s greatest works, second only, perhaps, to the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was tasked with painting a mural of The Last Supper onto the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This painting represents the Passover meal Jesus had with his apostles not long before his arrest as written in the Gospel of John.

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”- John 13:21 (NIV)

It is thought that Leonardo produced hundreds of sketches, refining his ideas for the final painting, however, only a few survive. Only one compositional sketch remains, showing a couple of ideas he experimented with. The challenge was to fit thirteen figures around a table whilst giving each one a distinctive characteristic. In one sketch, Judas is depicted at the end of the table and in another, he is standing to receive the bread from Christ. In the final painting, Judas has been integrated into the group of disciples.

The exhibition displays some of Leonardo’s initial sketches of some of the disciples, one of which is Judas. The traitor has a hooked nose, close-set lips and a muscular neck. His head is turned away from the viewer to look at Christ in mild surprise. In the painting, Judas’ facial expression appears to reveal his evil intent, however, it is thought this has been added by restorers at a later date.

The sketch of St Philip shows the disciple’s youth, emphasised by his long wavy hair and smooth face. St James also appears to be young with a similar hairstyle. The latter sketch, however, has been produced more rapidly than the others, suggesting it was drawn from a live model. Leonardo also practised the drapes of the clothing the disciples wore, for example, the sketch of St Peter’s arm who, dressed in thick fabric, leans over Judas’ shoulder in the final painting.

Leonardo briefly returned to Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. By now, he was using natural red and black chalks to produce his sketches, as can be seen in the delicate bust of a young child. This is likely a drawing of the Christ Child, although, no evidence of a painting featuring the same figure exists. Also in orangey-red is a study of drapery for the recently rediscovered painting of Christ as the saviour of the world, Salvator Mundi.

In a combination of black chalk or charcoal and ink are a few studies for the head of Leda for the lost painting of Leda and the Swan. In Greek mythology, Leda was a queen of Sparta who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Leda then bore two eggs from which hatched two sets of twins: Helen and Polydeuces, and Castor and Pollux.

The painting, which was destroyed in the eighteenth century, is thought to be the only image of the female nude Leonardo produced; however, he was far more interested in the elaborately coiled and braided hair and plants in the foreground than her body. The exhibition also displays a number of plant sketches that indicate Leonardo’s scientific interest in botany.

One of Leonardo’s main reasons for returning to Florence was to paint a huge mural in the Palazzo della Signoria to represent the Battle of Anghiari. The painting had been commissioned by the government to show the victory over the Milanese in 1440. Unfortunately, Leonardo never had the chance to complete the painting and the progress he had made was later destroyed.

What has survived, however, are some of Leonardo’s studies of horses and riders. In some, the horses are running at full gallop, their manes billowing in the wind. In others, the artist has focused on the powerful expressions on the horses’ faces, their lips drew back and eyes wild.

Although Leonardo had nothing to show for the Battle of Anghiari commission, it rekindled an old interest of his: anatomy. Leonardo had begun studying anatomy many years before, however, his sketches were largely inaccurate. He had no knowledge of the circulatory system and believed that veins distributed nutrition to the liver. The heart, he assumed, produced the body’s spirit, which was pumped around the body via the arteries.

From around 1506, Leonardo had access to human corpses from which to study in detail. He was on good terms with a handful of physicians who regarded Leonardo as an anatomist. In the winter of 1507-8, Leonardo performed his first post-mortem on the body of an elderly man in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. He recorded his findings in a series of notes and detailed drawings.

During his first dissection, Leonardo discovered the gastrointestinal tract and appendix. In writing, written backwards in mirror-image so that other people could not easily plagiarise his ideas but more so because, being left-handed, he was less likely to smudge the ink, Leonardo has produced the first description of this structure in Western medicine. He mentions the process of urine from the kidneys through to the bladder amongst other findings.

Leonardo also dissected animals, recording details of their internal organs, such as the lungs. Whilst claiming to have dissected thirty humans, he never performed an autopsy on a female. Nonetheless, he attempted to produce a diagram of the cardiovascular system and organs of a woman by combining the knowledge gained from other dissections, including animal, and ancient beliefs, such as a spherical, seven-chambered uterus.

Although recalled back to Milan where he served French occupiers in a number of ways for about seven years, he continued to work intensively on the anatomy. In 1513, Leonardo moved to Rome under the patronage of Giuliano de’ Medici (1479-1516), brother of Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Despite wanting to continue with his studies, he was not allowed to conduct any more dissections and his anatomical studies came to a halt.

Leonardo was ahead of his time with his anatomy discoveries and his drawings and notes were not fully understood until the 1900s. Although his work did not impact modern developments in biology, in hindsight it is clear that the Renaissance anatomist had learnt the scientific accuracies about the structure of the human body long before anyone else.

One sheet of sketches and jottings made by Leonardo show the musculature in an arm and the veins flowing from the body to the limb. Another sketch details the skeletal structure, revealing the spinal column, pelvis, arm bones and leg bones. There are a few errors on this particular page, for example, an elongated shoulder blade, but on the whole, it was an unprecedented drawing of a human skeleton.

In a heavily annotated drawing of muscles and tendons of a lower leg and foot, Leonardo debunked the theory that contraction of the muscles involved inflation with systemic air. In his drawing of a foetus in a womb, however, he had no real knowledge of the insides of a female’s reproductive system and yet he produced a drawing that looks close to the truth. Leonardo was intrigued that a foetus could fit in the uterus and so, using his knowledge of a cows placenta drew a curled up foetus with the umbilical cord wrapped around the crossed legs. Apart from being in the breech position, this illustration of the foetus is not too dissimilar to contemporary diagrams.

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The Chateau of Amboise c.1517-19 – attributed to Francesco Melzi

From Rome, Leonardo travelled to France after accepting an offer of employment at the court of Francis I (1494-1547), the king of France. By now, Leonardo was 64 years old and he and his assistants were still painting his future famous works including St Anne and Mona Lisa. Settling at Amboise in the Loire valley, Leonardo held the position of painter, engineer and architect to the king. He mainly worked as a designer, producing sketches of architecture, costumes and equestrian monuments. The sketch of the Chateau of Amboise on display, however, was not produced by Leonardo’s hand. It is most likely the work of one of his assistants, the aforementioned Francesco Melzi. Although the style is similar to Leonardo’s the direction of the hatching indicates it was produced by a right-handed artist.

Francis I was a keen party-goer and held several lavish entertainments, for which Leonardo designed costumes. Leonardo went to town with the detail producing designs rich with ribbons, fringes, furs, quilted sleeves and breeches. Clothing ranged from mercenary soldiers’ uniforms to fools and even prostitutes.

Not only did Leonardo design costumes, but his drawings also showed the characters in action, for example, a young man on horseback complete with a lance. This showed how the material would fall as the body moved and may even have been a help to the seamstress. Not all the costumes were elaborate, however; his sketch of a masquerader dressed up as a prisoner involved rags and shackles.

Toward the end of his life, Leonardo became preoccupied with cataclysmic storms, floods and man’s futile struggle against the overwhelming forces of nature. Art historians tend to believe Leonardo was extremely aware of the limited time he had left and was reflecting on some of his greatest creations, which had been destroyed in front of his very eyes, i.e. the equestrian monument commissioned by Sforza. Leonardo understood the impermanence of the world, having studied human anatomy, dissected dead bodies and examined plant and animal life for a number of years.

These sketches of deluges, however, were not created by an elderly man suffering from despair. They were drawn with the eye of a scientist, showing the optical qualities of cloud, rain, water and smoke.

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A description of a deluge, with marginal sketches c.1517-18

As well as drawing, Leonardo wrote detailed instructions about how to draw an accurate deluge.

Let there first be shown the summit of a rugged
mountain surrounded by valleys. From its sides
the soil slides together with the roots of bushes,
denuding great areas of rock. And descending from
these precipices, ruinous in its boisterous course, it
lays bare the twisted and gnarled roots of large trees,
throwing their roots upwards; and the mountains,
scoured bare, reveal deep fissures made by ancient
earthquakes. The bases of the mountains are covered
with ruins of trees hurled down from their lofty
peaks, mixed with mud, roots, branches and leaves
thrust into the mud and earth and stones.

And into the depths of a valley the fragments of
a mountain have fallen, forming a shore to the
swollen waters of its river, which has burst its banks
and rushes on in monstrous waves, striking and
destroying the walls of the towns and farmhouses
in the valley. The ruin of these buildings throws up
a great dust, rising like smoke or wreathed clouds
against the falling rain. The swollen waters sweep
round them, striking these obstacles in eddying
whirlpools, and leaping into the air as muddy
foam. And the whirling waves fly from the place of
concussion, and their impetus moves them across
other eddies in a contrary direction […]

The rain as it falls from the clouds is of the same
colour as those clouds, in its shaded side, unless the
sun’s rays break through them, in which case the
rain will appear less dark than the clouds. And if the
heavy masses of ruined mountains or buildings fall
into the vast pools of water, a great quantity will
be flung into the air, and its movement will be in a
contrary direction to that of the object which struck
the water; that is to say, the angle of reflection will
be equal to the angle of incidence.

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018

This is the writing of a man still of sound mind; a scientist and an artist whose skills complement each other rather than contrast. Leonardo was a great thinker both visually and intellectually, and there has arguably not been anyone since who matches his genius.

By 1518, Leonardo’s health was deteriorating and reports state that he had lost the use of his right arm, which suggests he may have suffered a stroke. His weakness is evident in one of his final sketches, a portrait of an old, bearded man, which whilst not a literal self-portrait may at least be an indication of how he viewed himself: lank hair and rheumy eyes. The chalk lines are shorter and more hesitant than Leonardo’s previous work, suggesting he did not have full control over the chalk.

Leonardo da Vinci passed away at Amboise on 2nd May 1519, leaving all his loose sheets and notebooks to Francesco Melzi. Due to Melzi’s care and protection, and of those who handled them afterwards, the drawings have survived to today, where we can appreciate an insight into the greatest mind of the Renaissance.

The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing does not display any of Leonardo’s famous works. There are no paintings or complete artworks. Instead, the 200 or so sketches piece together the real man: the artist, the engineer, the botanist, the anatomist, the scientist, the mathematician, the inventor, the geologist, the astronomer, the writer, the historian, the cartographer, the greatest man of all time. We are extremely lucky to have the opportunity to view these drawings when many of his major works have been lost or destroyed.

The chance to view the exhibition of Leonardo’s work in London is possible at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th October 2019 after which it will move to the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. Tickets are £13.50 for adults and it is highly recommended that they are booked in advance online.