A Study in Portraits – Da Vinci and Van Gogh

2 February 2017

A Study in Portraits – da Vinci and Van Gogh Two of the greatest artists of all time would have to be Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Da Vinci was an artistic genius, as well as an ingenious inventor and scientist, while Van Gogh was an artistic savant whose mental instability cut short a career of wonder and enlightenment. Both artists presented works that made people look both outside at the artwork itself as well as inside the individual viewer in order to interpret the work.

Ultimately, it was their work in the style of portraiture that we can link the two artists. Da Vinci was one of the first artists of the Renaissance to use the three-quarter view as a pose for his subjects. This allowed the subject to look directly into the viewer’s eye, which was by design, as Leonardo himself was quoted as saying, “The eye is said to be the window of the soul” (Broude and Garrard, 59). Van Gogh, in contrast, was able to use the art of the portrait to help assuage his mental instability and provide himself with an outlet for his skills when he was unable to work outdoors.

A Study in Portraits – Da Vinci and Van Gogh Essay Example

His temperament was such that he was content during fair weather, able to work outside on paintings and sketches but it was during times of poor weather that he was most disagreeable. Ultimately, it was during the winter of 1888 that his instability struck its most infamous note when on December 23rd, after a reported argument with his dear friend and contemporary, Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear with a razor. Van Gogh is well known for his usage of colors and shades to bring out a feeling of emotion and meaning within his paintings.

One of his earlier projects, The Potato Eaters (1885), foretold his depth of understanding and ability. With this painting, Van Gogh shows an innate understanding of the usage of shadows to bring about the feeling that the subjects are genuine. As he continued in his short career, he only improved this understanding and explored how to use various colors to bring more depth of feeling and emotion to his painting. One of the best examples of this would have to be the Self-Portrait that he painted while staying at the insane asylum in Saint-Remy, France during 1889.

With this self-portrait, Van Gogh presents himself from the three-quarter view in order to show himself posing with his palette. In my opinion, this pose and the vibrant colors that he uses goes a long way to show just how much he needed to use his creativity in painting in order to maintain his mental equilibrium. Van Gogh himself noted just how important painting is to his life, writing in a letter to his brother Theo, “Work distracts me infinitely better than anything else and if I could once put all my energy into it, that might be the best remedy” (van Uitert, van Tiborgh, and van Heugten, 226).

In da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the artist showed the world that he was at the height of his capabilities. Within this exquisite painting, da Vinci perfected the method of sfumato that he first developed in The Virgin of the Rocks, as well as presented the subject in the three-quarter view. Contemporaries of da Vinci, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, were so impressed with these developments that they considered it miraculous (Janson and Janson, 282). When I view the Mona Lisa, I am struck with just how well-balanced the colors and shading are.

There is a rather smooth flow from the woman in the forefront to the background that da Vinci was able to accomplish with sfumato. It is like she is coming out of the mist that is all around, but the mist does the work of sfumato to mute her sharp features and make her more intriguing and mysterious. Another noticeable feature of the Mona Lisa would have to be her infamous smile. This is a smile that has been memorialized in literature and song for the past 500 years. The thought behind this smile has been one of antiquity’s favorite discussions, with opinions ranging from the state of her mind to whether the smile is really even hers.

Da Vinci himself may have had some fun with this as he wrote in his Treatise on Painting that the painter is so influenced by his own character that “it guides the painter’s arm and makes him reproduce himself” (Ripley, 44). Looking at both of these paintings, I am overwhelmed with the depths of emotions that you can see within these two works. In the Mona Lisa, there is the air of mystery that surrounds the woman. Who is she? Is she the wife of a patron? Or perhaps she is a self-portrait of da Vinci himself?

No one knows the true answer although biographer Giorgio Vasari surmised that she was the Madam Lisa Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant (Treasures of the World – Mona Lisa). Either way, this air of mystery that surrounds her enhances the beauty of the work of art that da Vinci created. In contrast, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait shows the artist in his element. By the usage of color, you can imagine that Van Gogh was still recovering from the ill effects of his sickness by both the whitish pale of is skin as well as the green hints that he mixes into the complexion that he creates. By showing himself in his painter’s smock holding a palette, Van Gogh takes the time to show everyone where he is most comfortable with himself. You get the understanding that he is a man who is desperate for peace and tranquility in his everyday life and health, but yet he is happy with his lot in life as a painter and an artist. Van Gogh was constantly experimenting with the usage of color and tones within his painting and it was by this process that we can also compare his work with that of da Vinci’s.

In the Mona Lisa, da Vinci uses the subtle changes of color and lighting to soften and mute the harsh edges of his painting in order to bring about a further range of emotion within the subject. Van Gogh uses these same changes in color and lighting to show the effects of his illness and yet his happiness in what he is doing. Evert van Uitert, et al. noted in their research of Van Gogh’s numerous letters that this experimentation was done on purpose: Van Gogh embarked on the self-portrait with the palette immediately after a bout of illness, when he was, in his own words, as thin and pale as a ghost.

In the portrait he apparently wanted to convey this by means of a complementary use of colour: “dark violet-blue, and the face whitish with yellow hair, so it is a colour effect. ” The striking use of green in the face certainly contributes to the ailing appearance of the painter. (226) Ultimately, we have two different works of art in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait. Both are clearly from different eras in the art world but yet they both have many similarities. Both paintings are done with oil paint, da Vinci’s on a wood panel while Van Gogh’s on canvas.

Both use some incredible combinations of color to evoke the emotions and meanings that the artistic masters were trying to bring forth. One, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, has a meaning that has been lost to history and subsequently, has been the subject of many forms of literature. The other, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, has a meaning that we all can discover thanks to the letters that he wrote to his brother Theo. Works Cited Auden, W. H. Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1961. Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard.

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