Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519)
Charcoal, black and red chalks; traces of framing line in pen and brown ink at upper right
8 x 6 1/8 in. (20.3 x 15.6 cm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1951 (51.90)
This hauntingly beautiful drawing closely relates to an oil painting on panel of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Musée du Louvre, Paris) from around 150812, and may have been a preparatory study for it. The head seen here appears to be exactly the size of the Virgin's head in the Louvre painting. The delicately finished drawing focuses on the atmospheric dissolution of her relieflike forms, and vividly illustrates the depth of Leonardo's explorations of optical phenomena late in his career. The artist would increasingly rely on complex pictorial techniques of drawing to articulate his scientific research on the perspective of color, the disappearance of form, and the gradations of light and shadow. Here, Leonardo reworked the charcoal and black chalk drawing with red chalk, especially evident in the face (but also extending less noticeably to the locks of hair in the underdrawing), using the sfumato technique. He softly smudged all the strokes of drawing to achieve a seamlessly blended tone "in the manner of smoke" (fumo), as he called it in his notes. It conforms with the observable phenomenon of disappearing edges in the secondary planes of a perspectival space, a subject that he amply discussed in his scientific writings. Further preparatory studies for the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne composition are at the Royal Library (Windsor Castle), and these transform scientific principles into a pictorial language of magical force and nuance.