Everyone agrees it is a masterpiece. But who painted The Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo or his students? Jonathan Jones joins the National Gallery on an epic quest to find out
The first clue to consider in deciding who painted The Virgin of the Rocks is the hair of the angel. That angel, sitting to the right, has long been recognised as the loveliest figure in this painting. Last week, I stood staring at the minutely precise spirals that knot and unknot on her head. It was the last in a series of visits to the National Gallery‘s skylit restoration studio, high above Trafalgar Square, where for the past 18 months The Virgin of the Rocks has been cleaned. What I saw, with sudden clarity, was the intimate similarity between the angel’s fine curls and Leonardo da Vinci‘s drawings of foaming rivers and swirling clouds, done at the same time in his life.
From there, turn your gaze to the angel’s sleeve: its fine pattern of interlinked gold hoops is evidently from the same hand; the grasses and leaves lower down the painting have likewise grown from the drawings of plants in Leonardo’s sketchbooks. Follow the many varieties of foliage – thin grass, tangled thorn, splotches of moss – into all the nooks and crannies that give this painting its atmosphere and name, and you have no doubt you are looking at a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.
This may not seem so surprising. It may not even sound like news. After all, since it was bought by the National Gallery in 1880, The Virgin of the Rocks has been exhibited as a “Leonardo”. But the small print was more complicated. If you read further into the gallery caption or catalogue, this painting’s attribution turned out to be ambiguous. For a long time, the National has believed its Leonardo to be mostly the work of assistants, with only the basic design and some perfect parts – above all, that angel – recognisable as his handiwork.
What a difference a cleaning can make. In its official statement yesterday, the gallery was naturally cautious (“it now seems possible that Leonardo painted all the picture himself”); but talking to me over several weeks in the workshop, in front of the painting, the National’s experts made it clear they believe this to be a pure and unsullied painting by Leonardo’s own hand. “We now have a picture which I believe is entirely by Leonardo,” said Luke Syson, curator of Italian Renaissance paintings and the man who has spearheaded this restoration. If he is right, this is a Leonardo to rank alongside The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
The Virgin of the Rocks exists in two versions: this one in London, and another in the Louvre. Why did Leonardo, who so rarely finished anything, completely redo this particular work? In 1483, he was commissioned to paint the central panel of a carved altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. He had just moved there from Florence; he was 31. As a calling card, it turned out to be typically bold. The pious fraternity did not get a painting alluding to the virgin birth of Christ’s mother, her “immaculate” freedom from sin; they got Mary introducing the young Saint John the Baptist – the toddler to the left, with her hand on his shoulder – to her son Jesus, who sits across from him, a foot or so away from his mother. The scene is a grotto in a wilderness. Through chinks in the towering rocks we glimpse blue and green waters, dappled vegetation, mountains receding into a glowing sky.
It’s a painting that has haunted me since my first visit to the National Gallery. Once you’ve seen it, everything else in this collection looks like flat daubs. There’s something about the Leonardo that gets to the deepest part of your brain. The view of sky and water through rocks stimulates the unconscious; the picture is like something you have dreamt. Perhaps this is why Leonardo was willing to paint it twice – because in this cavernous landscape he hit on a topography that perfectly reproduced the effect he claimed you could get by staring at a wall. (In his notes on painting, Leonardo advises the young artist to use what he admits may seem a ridiculous method to get visual ideas. If you stare at the stains and marks on a wall you start to see faces, landscapes, battles, he wrote.) Look at The Virgin of the Rocks with narrowed eyes. Are the dark rocks and holes not like stains and marks in a wall? Is there not an abstract, random, blot-like quality to their arrangement? In this painting Leonardo created a rocky wall to dream on.
He spent 25 years of his life on this image, from the original commission in 1483 to the last work on the second picture in 1508. A lot of things happened in that quarter-century. Leonardo painted The Last Supper, started the Mona Lisa and The Battle of Anghiari, tried and failed to fly, filled notebooks with inventions and theories. Wars raged and rulers fell. Still The Virgin of the Rocks held him. It was commissioned in a world that ended somewhere over the horizon beyond Ireland. When it was finished, if it ever was, it was in a world that included America.
The first version was probably painted quite quickly, but the painting that now hangs in the Louvre never decorated the Confraternity’s altarpiece. It may instead have been sold to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. A letter written in about 1494 suggests that Leonardo was not satisfied with the pittance he was getting from the Confraternity. This was art, not some workmanlike icon; Leonardo sold it on to a generous bidder. He then took an insultingly long time to produce a replacement for the church. That second replacement painting was still in Milan in the 18th century, when it was bought by the British artist Gavin Hamilton; in 1880, it was bought by the National Gallery.
The modern take on the Virgin of the Rocks, the gallery believes, has been influenced by a botched job in its own conservation department more than 60 years ago. In 1948, the painting was varnished. The concoction applied was an “unstable combination”, says Larry Keith, the new director of conservation, “[one] that was rapidly yellowing”. The painting was still hypnotic; but it’s true that two years ago, when it was last on public view, there was a flatness to much of it – only the angel seemed to have the vitality of Leonardo’s own paintings.
Since November 2008, Larry Keith has done the actual, hands-on work of restoration, liaising closely with Syson and the gallery’s scientific department. “You reap the benefits of a collective endeavour,” he says. Every decision he makes is based on the best analyses available. The result is what he calls a “conservative” restoration; it’s hard to see how anyone could accuse them of luridly jazzing up Leonardo’s painting, although that won’t stop diehard enemies of restoration from finding fault. Perhaps they will object to the painting’s spectacular new frame, made from fragments of a 16th-century original in order to recreate its original altarpiece setting.
In Leonardo’s brushstrokes
Conservative this restoration may be in style, but its implications are revolutionary. “I do believe the net effect is to get out of the way, so that you can see the picture properly,” says Keith, who never paints for his own pleasure (artistic originality would be a vice in a restorer, he says). In removing the ugly varnish, what became instantly more visible were “values and volumes”. A far richer variety of solid forms, depths and colours emerged. Keith’s retouching – gently and carefully repairing gaps in the paint – respected this new fullness and liveliness. As Syson watched and advised, his opinion of the picture changed by the day. “I’ve written, as a lot of people have, that this picture is collaborative,” Syson tells me. “That seemed quite plausible from what you could see in the pre-cleaned version. But then Larry started cleaning at the top-right corner, and it immediately started to look very free – not like the work of a pupil.”
A few days later, Syson calls me to qualify this claim. He stresses that, after an intense period working so close to a painting like this, your view of it is not the one you might have coming to it cold. There will, he acknowledges, still be debate. But the terms of that debate are now very different.
My own opinion is that this is all Leonardo. When I first saw the “new” painting in March, it seemed to have been freed from an amber prison. Every part of it swam with hesitant, playful creativity. How could I have missed, in the past, such brilliances as the tangle of sharp thorny branches behind the angel? That bush, at once natural observation and fantastic improvisation, is obviously Leonardo. So are most of the grasses and leaves that perforate every crevice. But the key to rethinking this picture is to grasp that it is not finished. It is not a neatly executed copy made to satisfy a commissioning body.
Behind John the Baptist are brown, palm-like leaves that look exactly like the silhouettes of desert trees in Leonardo’s unfinished painting The Adoration of the Magi: another purely Leonardo touch, and a sign that he never completely finished this painting, either. It was worked on over a long period, in fits and starts, as Leonardo left Milan, came back, then went away again. Syson says it finally struck him: why did the painting take so long? Because work could only go ahead when Leonardo was there – because he, not an assistant, was doing the painting. Parts of the painting are jewel-like, others are vague, but this does not seem to be a question of master and pupil. It looks more like the difference between Leonardo bringing something to perfection, and Leonardo leaving those palm leaves to complete later.
The first time I saw the cleaned picture I thought, wow, it’s a true Leonardo. Then hearing someone else say it – for all Syson’s expertise and eloquence – brought out the cynical journalist in me. I had to see it one last time, to look at it as objectively as possible. I started with the angel’s hair, those rivers of light. Then I looked at the angelic sleeve, the grasses and leaves, the palms, the Virgin’s hair, which for the first time I recognised as another riverine braid straight out of a Leonardo drawing. I looked at the tendons of her outstretched hand (think of Leonardo’s anatomical studies), the profound facial expressions. Why did anyone ever doubt this was anything but a great Leonardo? This is the passionate play of a genius at work: ceaselessly experimental, provocative, brave. The Virgin of the Rocks is a missing link between his paintings and the uninhibited playfulness of his drawings. A treasure is reborn.