Leonardo da Vinci’s Unexamined Life as a Painter

A new show marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, and reveals some of his innermost thoughts.

The exhibit brings together more Leonardo da Vinci works than have been shown together in the same place since the 1950s. (Musée du Louvre)

PARIS—The Leonardo drawings were what did it for me. Their intimacy, their vitality and freshness, the way they captured figures simultaneously at rest and in motion. The Virgin Mary washing a young Jesus’s little feet in a basin. Faces—a full inner life captured in a few strokes of ink. Sketches for background figures in The Adoration of the Magi. Bridling horses, the flow of water, the sinews of an arm, the leaves of a mulberry tree, compasses, water on the moon.

The blockbuster exhibit, “Leonardo da Vinci,” opened at the Louvre last month, the product of a decade of work and as much international diplomacy as the Iran nuclear-accord deal. The show itself is stunningly beautiful. But for all the hoopla and intrigue, it does not include the mysterious Salvator Mundi painting, which broke records when it sold for $450 million in 2017 to a Saudi prince and subsequently disappeared. The exhibition runs through February and presents a rare opportunity to spend some time inside the mind and world of the artist.

That’s if you can manage to see the works up close. The show, like the Mona Lisa herself—upstairs at the Louvre in a bulletproof glass box, swarmed by selfie-takers and their performative art viewing, pictures or it didn’t happen—is a mob scene. Last year, more than 10 million people visited the Louvre. Tickets for the Leonardo exhibit must be reserved online in advance, and even before the show opened, representatives said they had already sold 260,000. (The museum says it can accommodate 5,000 people a day, and 7,000 on days when it stays open later at night.)

Louis Frank, one of the organizers of the show and a curator of drawings at the Louvre, says the exhibition grew from “a need to understand who Leonardo was and to understand his work.” Leonardo’s artistic contributions marked the entry into modernity, the moment someone had surpassed the achievements of the ancient world. He was an artist who had “the capacity to imitate not only the exteriority of form but the interiority of life itself,” Frank says.

Étude de Vierge à l’Enfant (RMN-Grand Palais, musée du Louvre / Michel Urtado)

The show marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death—in France, where he was a court painter to Francis I. It makes the case that Leonardo was, first and foremost, a painter, and it brings together more Leonardo works than have been shown together in the same place since the 1950s—from the Louvre, the Vatican, the Hermitage, the National Gallery in Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II’s royal collection. For all his achievements, and his far-ranging mind, he completed fewer than 20 paintings, and many of them are here.

There’s Leonardo’s unfinished Saint Jerome, on loan from the Vatican Museums—a lion at his feet in the wilderness, a turtle inside the curl of the lion’s tail. There’s the Benois Madonna from the Hermitage, where Mary is laughing and in the background, just above baby Jesus’s head, a window looks out onto an infinite sky. There’s La Belle Ferronnière, a portrait of a woman who looks out to her left, aglow against a black background, as if she were about to speak, a woman on the verge of something.

Before the Leonardo show happened, there were tensions between Italy, home of Leonardo, and France, where Leonardo died. Before it fell in August, Italy’s populist government had put up nationalist resistance to loaning works. After a low point in Franco-Italian relations, President Emmanuel Macron invited Italian President Sergio Mattarella to France, and the two visited Leonardo’s grave in the Loire Valley. After a last-minute court wrangle, Vitruvian Man did arrive from Venice’s Accademia Gallery and is on view here through mid-December—his arms touching the edges of the circle that encloses him, a paragon of symmetry, and now also of cultural diplomacy.

The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne (musée du Louvre)

What is left to say about Leonardo after all the biographies, the novels, the conspiracy theories? This show features radiographic images of many of the paintings, which reveal the artist’s constant revisions. But more than that, it offers a chance to feel. When I arrived at The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne, in which Jesus, a pudgy toddler, is holding on to a little gray curly-haired lamb, and Mary, in her blue robe, is sitting on her mother’s lap and lovingly reaching across to hold the baby’s soft belly, I stopped short and remembered the first time I’d seen this painting. I was 13 and my mother, an art historian, had taken me to Europe for the first time. It was June, light outside well past 10 p.m., and we spent hours in the Louvre, a full immersion in the history of art and iconography. That lamb prefigures what happens later in the story, my mother explained, when Jesus becomes the lamb of God, sacrificed on the cross.

That trip, we spent a long time in front of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, also in this show, in which the child John the Baptist points at Jesus, and Mary is calm and luminous, glowing from within. The figures are set in relief against a strange rocky backdrop, an invented landscape of lights and shadows. From that visit I also remember the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Greco-Roman sculpture, and the endless hallways of the Louvre, and the Seine nearby. Who could not be moved and thrilled? For me, a dreamy girl growing up in New England, my first visit to Paris was heaven itself.

At “Leonardo,” I studied the exquisite folds of drapery in his drawings, and those by his teacher in Florence, Andrea del Verrocchio. I was captivated by a single page with a study of a bucking horse for the Battle of Anghiari (a victory of the Florentines over the Milanese), and below it a study of Leda tangling with the swan. Reality and myth on the same plane. I got lost in the scientific drawings from Leonardo’s Codex Leicester (now owned by Bill and Melinda Gates), and in the Codex Atlanticus, on loan from Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The slant of Leonardo’s famous mirror writing left me entranced, how he wrote backwards as if writing forward were just too easy. His mind seemed to seize on everything in its grasp, everything in the known world.

I spent a lot of time in front of one of the concluding works in the show: a drawing of a deluge, a tempest that engulfs the world, all swirls of motion, houses and vegetation caught up in its path. Why leave home to come see this? Why wait on line and brave the crowded discomfort of the Louvre? To be in the presence of the original. To seek beauty. And in this exhibit, if you can get close enough to the art, you will most certainly find it.