Leonardo da Vinci and Renaissance Drawing

For my final Open University essay at the end of the ‘Renaissance Art Reconsidered’ unit, I chose to write about a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci that he drew in the last year of his life while living in France. This was an enjoyable essay to do, not least because of all the nice books I bought, but being the 500th anniversary of his death there were national exhibitions of his drawings, including one in Southampton, that I visited to see this drawing in the flesh.

It was initially daunting thinking about writing 4500 words on a single drawing, but my tutor suggested breaking it up to look at how the drawing was made, the importance or otherwise of where it was made, and why it was made. Then to tie this into how drawings were used during the Renaissance. This made it much easier to work everything together into a coherent essay, writing ‘blocks’ covering each area. I scored 77 for this essay, giving me a Grade 2 pass overall for the module.

How does the making, locating and viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s The head of an old bearded man in profile help us to understand the significance of drawings during the Renaissance?

Leonardo da Vinci’s The head of an old bearded man in profile (c.1519) (1) is a drawing Leonardo made in the last year of his life while he was living in France. The work is not a self-portrait, but as Martin Clayton, head of drawings at the Royal Collections Trust writes ‘it must be regarded […] as a self-image, an exploration of Leonardo’s perception of himself, both noble and pathetic, as he approached death’ (Clayton 2018, p.242). Clayton’s view makes the drawing a romantic metaphor for the great artist near the end of his life, but is this view reflected in the materials and techniques Leonardo used to produce it? Leonardo produced many images of old men, some as portraits and others as caricatures, or as working drawings for larger paintings and anatomical studies. Was this portrait just another exercise in looking, or can it be as Clayton suggests, a conscious attempt to create a ‘self-image’? This essay explores these issues in relation to the making of the drawing, and issues of locating and viewing. Its aim is not only to shed light on the significance of this drawing in respect of these issues, but also to use this specific work of art to explore the wider significance of drawing in Renaissance art practice. How does one of Leonardo’s last drawings compare to the rest of his corpus, and what can it tell us about the purpose of drawing in the Renaissance? What function would this drawing have served for Leonardo, and how would it have been received by the wider audience of the early sixteenth century? I will answer these questions by looking at Leonardo’s life in France and how this related to his drawing practices, by discussing how The head of an old bearded man in profile was made, located and viewed, and how looking at this drawing can relate to the wider significance of drawings in the Renaissance.

Leonardo spent his last years living at the Château of Clos Lucé at Amboise in France, working in the court of King Francis I who appointed him ‘painter, engineer and architect’ (Kemp 2006, p.347). Francis was a great admirer of Leonardo and allowed him the freedom to draw and design as he wished. During his lifetime Leonardo was considered an important and respected artist despite the number of commissions he defaulted on or never completed. The Renaissance goldsmith Cellini reported that in the court of Francis I Leonardo was considered ‘a kind of magus who was seen as a philosopher-magician of the visual world’ (in Kemp 1987, p.98), reinforcing the high status that Leonardo had attained though skill and realism in the works he did complete, but also through his technical ability and understanding of a wide range of subjects that he studied and drew.

Drawings during the Renaissance were not generally considered artworks, but rather as cheap, portable media created with cheap materials for specific functions. These functions could include realising designs and ideas, copying of other artworks, recording studies of nature, or to show patrons a design for an intended commission. These many functions were paramount to the production of art. As curator Carmen Bambach states, ‘The skill of drawing was the backbone of artistic production and training in the Italian Renaissance’ (Bambach 2003, p.8). Without drawing there would have been no painting, sculpture, or architecture. Over the course of an artist’s lifetime they would have amassed many drawings that would allow them to construct realistic paintings from a catalogue of their own studies, greatly speeding up commissions. Drawings also allowed assistants to copy the ‘workshop style’ so they could work on large commissions alongside the master. One important function of drawings was to teach apprentices correct techniques and drawing practices. It was accepted that learning to draw correctly was important and Leonardo went as far as to start constructing a treatise on painting, emphasising the study and reproduction of nature saying;

‘One painter ought never to imitate the manner of any other […]. It is always best to have recourse to Nature, which is replete with such abundance of objects, than to the productions of other masters, who learnt every thing from her.’ (Da Vinci 1802, p.203).

This emphasises Leonardo’s belief that is was always best to observe, study and record nature with its wide variety of objects, than to copy the works of others who may have copied things inaccurately. This extremely evident through Leonardo’s work and explains the many subjects that Leonardo drew during his lifetime. These were often acute observations of nature that no-one else had recorded in as much detail before. They ranged from the studies of light on folds of clothes, anatomy of the heart, botanical studies, to anatomy and portraits as studies of expressions and the human face.

The head of an old bearded man in profile is a diminutive drawing only 25.1 x 18.2 cm, drawn in black chalk on paper and is far apart from many of his more well-known drawings such as his anatomical or equine studies. The paper used is a very coarse, low quality brown paper, which is similar to many of Leonardo’s other later drawings from France such as his Deluge series and Masquerade drawings (both c.1517-1518). Art historian Martin Kemp suggests that this choice of paper could have been a conscious decision by Leonardo to complement the subject being drawn, but it may also have been the only paper available to him in France. Conservator Alan Donnithorne’s analysis of the paper shows that this low-quality paper is ‘made from mixed fibres derived not necessarily from textiles but from recycled rope’ (Donnithorne 2019, p.41). This mix of fibres includes straw, hair and wool, and gives the paper its brown tone and could account for some of the lighter chalk strokes not standing out as much as they would on a whiter paper. One oddity of this particular sheet is that it has been repaired during the manufacturing process with a large patch in the centre that is raised above the surrounding area, and a smaller one near the bottom. These obvious repairs make this choice of sheet a strange one to use for a drawing that doesn’t work around it, but reinforces the idea that this type of paper may have been the only stock available to Leonardo at the time. The drawing could have been on a cleaner sheet, or it may have been chosen by Leonardo because of the flaws in it, which in turn may have assigned a specific function to the drawing which made it less important than other studies where a better sheet of paper was required.

The medium used is black chalk, originating from northern France, and a common drawing material in the Renaissance as it gave a clear crisp line. The drawing of The head of an old bearded man in profile illustrates this use with a delicate chalk outline and fine lines of varying weights and soft subtle shading from hatched strokes that allowed for smudging to produce different tones. Sfumato was a technique Leonardo practiced that blended colours and tones together to produce a more realistic image. The eye we can see is shown under a heavy furrowed brow, drawn semi-closed with wrinkles underneath and lines to the side. The mouth, along with the head and nose, has thin, light lines before a final placement is settled on, and is drawn slightly open as if the man is breathing heavily with the vaguest suggestion of a few teeth showing. Despite this, he has a strong face, although very clearly that of an old man. Half of the drawing has been taken up with the man’s long beard that is well defined and detailed around his face, but trails off into a series of short, light strokes in the bottom left corner of the page. The focus is very definitely the man’s face and his expression. Leonardo’s drawing style was to use fine hatching which he used to separate the head from the background, giving depth to the image. There is also hatching in front of the ear, under the eye, nose and mouth to suggest roundness. Donnithorne states that ‘Leonardo used black chalk throughout his career, for both sketching and finished drawings’ (Donnithorne 2019, p.18), so the use of black chalk cannot tell us any specifics to the function of the drawing, if it was a working drawing or drawn from life.

On looking at the original drawing, one’s eye is drawn to the man’s overly emphasised drooping nose. Even closer inspection shows that Leonardo had initially drawn the nose larger, with fine, faint lines before settling on a more pronounced hook, with a stronger, heavier  line denoting the final nose shape being the heaviest on the whole picture. These features appear very similar to another drawing by Leonardo, The head of an old bearded man (c.1517-18) (2) which shows a pronounced hook nose and long flowing beard, but this slightly earlier drawing is much more confident with strong, clear, detailed strokes showing a muscular neck and braided hair, creating a more finer, ‘finished’ drawing. However, as Martin Clayton suggests for The head of an old bearded man in profile, ‘[the chalk lines] are clearly more hesitant, suggesting that he was no longer fully in control of his chalk’ (Clayton 2018, p.242). This is especially evident around the man’s head, which isn’t one single fluid line, but a series of soft, broken lines before a final heavier line to fix the shape of the head, similar to his construction of the nose. There are also a few strokes much further out to the right of the picture, perhaps indicating a first attempt at the back of the man’s head. The line is also far from a smooth curve which does reflect the nature of the subject being shown, however, this may have been a result of the quality of paper used not allowing for a smooth line. The tentative nature of the lines reinforces Clayton’s opinion that this drawing may have been one of the last works by Leonardo before his death, which forms a mental image of a withered old man akin to the one in the drawing.

Portraits or studies of old men were a regular subject for Leonardo, especially those with quirky or emphasised features such as sunken jaws and large hooked noses. These formed many drawings termed ‘Grotesques’. Curator Luke Syson suggests that these portraits served a more physiognomic purpose, as ‘investigations of facial expression and the ways in which a person’s soul or history might show in his features’ (Syson 2011, p.25). These studies would have helped Leonardo choose certain heads expressing different emotions in paintings such as The Last Supper (3), which contains many of the Apostles as older bearded men. As Kemp writes: ‘Contemporary accounts confirm that Leonardo made quick aides-memoires of faces seen, searching particularly for extremes in physiognomy and expression’ (Kemp 2006, p.144). It was from these quick sketches from life that Leonardo would then construct faces, giving each one a specific emotion. It seems that The head of an old bearded man in profile with its emphasised nose, long beard and clear expression may have originated from sketches like these, lending weight to the probability of the drawing being used as an instructional drawing to show specific techniques. This also emphasises Leonardo’s instructions to students on observing and recording people around them, as Leonardo stated:

You must observe and remember well the variations of the four principal features in the profile; the nose, mouth, chin, and forehead. And first of the nose, of which there are three different sorts, straight, concave, and convex. (Leonardo 1820, p.11)

Producing studies of faces from observation allowed artists to record features and details, and drawing helped to achieve this. The portability of sheets of paper and chalk, charcoal or metalpoint would allow for quick sketches, often from many different viewpoints. These could serve as templates for an artist to use when working on a cartoon for a larger work such as a painting or fresco or be put into a library of works that were available to other artists in the workshop in order for them to learn drawing techniques.

In this regard, while it seems strange for an artist to still be working on new studies when he’s old and possibly ill, it’s a fact that an artist like Leonardo would still be producing work by way of teaching his students and for his apprentices to use after his passing. Ambrogio de’ Beatis, assistant to Cardinal Luigi of Arago, when visiting Leonardo in 1517 commented:

‘One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him, as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand…And although Messer Leonardo can no longer paint with the sweetness which was peculiar to him, he can still design and instruct others. (Bodkin, 2019).

This paralysis in his right hand was attributed to a stroke but has recently been diagnosed as ulna palsy. The observation by Beatis shows that Leonardo was still able to draw and teach, and it may have been that The head of an old bearded man in profile was used as a drawing exercise. This could also explain the lightness of line and subtle shading and being used a sketch to show a particular skill such as the depiction of a beard or how to create a specific expression, and would account for the inconsistencies in the already low-quality paper as the quality of paper wouldn’t have mattered for a teaching exercise.

Before arriving in France, Leonardo spent 16 years working in Milan, probably sent there by Lorenzo de’ Medici, and entered Ludovico Sforza’s service in the mid 1480’s. In Milan his interests in science and the military grew, as well as his theories behind the representation of the natural world and human body. As Clayton notes ‘his aim was to ultimately understand every aspect of the visible world’ (Clayton 2018, p.12). In 1499 the French invaded Lombardy, one of many French invasions into Italy since 1494, overthrowing Sforza, now Duke of Milan, leaving Leonardo without a patron. However, Leonardo was a very respected and well-known artist who was hugely appreciated by the French. As Syson remarks:

‘The French were more visually sophisticated than the Sforza had been at the time of Leonardo’s arrival in Milan in 1482/3 […] and the impact of Leonardo’s paintings was clearly enduring’ (Syson 2011, p.281).

The French were much more traditional in their image-making than the Italians, who were looking towards Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian for ever more inspired art. From the Italian invasions ‘many French patrons became receptive to aspects of Italian art […] promoting what they regarded as desirable about Italian visual culture in France’ (Tolley in Woods 2007, p.145).

Sensing this shift in Italian art, Leonardo accepted a long-standing invitation to move to France in 1516. Leonardo entered the service of King Francis I, who was an admirer of Leonardo’s work since seeing designs by him of a mechanical lion many years before. Francis I paid Leonardo ‘a very substantial sum of 2000 ecus d’or per annum’ (Kemp 2006, p.345), which was more than enough for Leonardo to not have to rely on outside commissions and allow him to explore the natural world and draw as he wanted.

While Clayton suggested that The head of an old bearded man in profile was the work of someone not fully in control, Kemp mentions that many of Leonardo’s later works from France were produced on coarse paper with low quality materials which could account for the inconsistencies in line, and that he was just as capable as producing work equal in quality to his early or mid-works. Kemp continues that while in France, ‘Leonardo was afforded the luxury of being Leonardo. He was given time and space in which to exercise his peripatetic mind’ (Kemp 1987, p.98). While Leonardo was perhaps unable to paint, it is through his drawings we can see his continued thought processes. In France he was able to work largely on his own terms and continue to work on his treaties.

The significance of this move on Leonardo’s drawings is hard to quantify, but as Art Historian Thomas Tolley remarks, ‘His very presence in France was itself a tremendous achievement, a myth-making episode that helped to raise the monarchy’s profile’ (Tolley in Woods 2007, p.165). It seems that Leonardo’s prestige as one of the greatest painters in Europe had more of an effect on subsequent French art than it had on his own, and his presence in the French court could have primarily been to raise the status of the monarchy’s appreciation of the arts. After Leonardo’s death in 1519, and the death of his assistant Salai in 1524, Francis I had agents in Italy collecting works by Leonardo for his Royal collection, such was Leonardo’s impact on him (Shell and Grazioso 1991, p.97). While in France, Leonardo’s drawings included designs for water gardens and fountains for the King’s palaces, maps of canals, stage and costume designs, and a design for a palace at Romorantin. These drawings were directly influenced by Leonardo being in France, and while The head of an old bearded man in profile may not fit with these French designs, it’s perhaps because of this that makes this drawing stand out and alludes to a different function.

Although Martin Clayton suggests that the picture was drawn to make us think of an old man near the end of his life, while in France Leonardo continued to draw with just as much exploration as he had while in Italy. Kemp writes that for the last three years of his life in France he was ‘the fertile and centrifugal intellect with which we are familiar from earlier periods of his life’. (Kemp 1987, p.98). The fact that Leonardo was allowed the freedom to indulge himself in designing canals, waterways and formal gardens for the King’s palaces rather than having to work on commissions was significant in Leonardo’s life in France and explains the continued and varied output of drawings. As Kemp remarks:

‘The environment, potentially, was that in which he could undertake the great summation of his work, achieving the profoundly personal expression of his particular genius in the manner of a late Titian or Michelango’ (Kemp 1987, p.98).

France, far from being a self-imposed ‘retirement’ for Leonardo, was where he was most free to work. To carry on designing and understanding the world around him, and to pass his knowledge on though his treaties and teaching.

The function The head of an old bearded man in profile served to Leonardo was probably rather inconsequential when taken as part of Leonardo’s drawing corpus. However, given that it was probably one of the last drawings he did, it also marks the culmination of his lifetime’s work. The drawing appears very personal, far removed from the dynamic appearance of other late works such as his Deluge series or his equine studies. It is one of several studies of older men Leonardo drew throughout his life, most of which have similar features, suggesting The head of an old bearded man in profile was a drawing from memory rather than a study from life. However, this drawing appears to stand alone rather than being a part of any specific series of drawings. This makes it stand out as an interesting subject as he has dedicated a whole single sheet of paper to it, rather than many studies or ideas on a single sheet, or similar separate drawings created around the same time. This reinforces the idea that The head of an old bearded man in profile was probably created as a drawing exercise, but as Clayton remarks, ‘Leonardo’s drawings were never trifles to be thrown away […] bequeathing them to his faithful assistant Franceso Melzi’ (Clayton 2018, p.16).

The audience for The head of an old bearded man in profile would have been limited to Leonardo’s assistants and students. One of the functions of drawings in the Renaissance was to create studies to copy into pictures, so the drawing was a very important tool that was never really intended to be seen by the public, but the resulting ideas the drawings contained were paramount, as they would have been what Leonardo as an artist was judged against.

Drawings to Leonardo were a means to an end ‘for the realisation of ideas for compositions and for the training of the artists hand and eye’ (Clayton 2018, p.10). Looking at Leonardo’s drawings we can get an idea of how significant drawing was during the Renaissance. The fact that so many of them survive can be attributed to his assistant, Franceso Melzi, who in Leonardo’s will was left his notebooks and drawings in order to become an artist after Leonardo. This method of passing on work was common in the Renaissance, as Evelyn Welch writes, ‘drawings were carefully listed in artist’s inventories and were handed down from father to son, or passed from one shop to another’ (Welch 2007, p.64). This shows how valued drawings were to artists and explains why Leonardo left his to Melzi, and why Melzi kept hold of them as a single body of work. Drawings such as The head of an old bearded man in profile would have provided Melzi with a solid portrait that he would have been able to utilise for his own commissions.

Drawings had become a valued tool for an artist to attempt to copy the world around him, to understand and replicate it through art works. Drawings were also a means of expressing disegno, a term that meant having the intellectual capacity to design as well as the skill with which to carry this out through drawing. The concept of disegno helped to raise the status of painting in the Renaissance from a craft to an art, in turn helping artists such as Leonardo achieve the status that he had clearly earned throughout Europe as one of a genius. This disegno is clearly evident in The head of an old bearded man in profile, as the portrait was probably drawn from memory and despite the materials and potential decline of Leonardo’s health, it’s an accomplished drawing that belies a lot of finer detail. Clayton’s statement as a ‘self-image’ may be partially true: while not a self-portrait in the traditional sense of those that Leonardo had drawn before, it may have been a picture based partly on his own design with features copied from the old men he had drawn throughout his life taken from observation, and partly based on how he saw himself. This ability to invent marked Leonardo out as one of the greats of Renaissance art and shows that Leonardo was constantly re-inventing himself for different audiences, something that is clear in his earlier work from Florence, Milan and Rome.

Even though drawings during the Renaissance were considered tools for teaching and the creation of art, Leonardo’s extensive body of surviving drawings can be taken as a very good example that ‘powerfully attest[s] to the changing attitude toward draughtsmanship in Renaissance Italy’ (Bohn & Saslow 2012, p.37). As Carmen Bambach continues, Leonardo’s drawings ‘were avidly sought by collectors even during his lifetime’ (Bambach 2003, p.5) which shows that there was a growing appreciation for an artist’s skill, which could be illustrated in the drawings of famous artists demonstrating disegno. These collections helped to preserve works and can account for the many drawings by Leonardo that survive today. Through these collections drawings started to be appreciated as works of art in their own right, such as in Gorgio Vasari’s collection which supplemented his Lives of the most famous Artists (1550-68). As art historian Catherine King writes:

‘other collectors valued drawings as autographs […] as the guarantee of quality; they prized drawings, whether polished or not, which could be interpreted as showing the process of an individual’s thoughts’ (King in Woods 2007 p.28).

Through studying The head of a bearded man in profile, we can see how this picture came about. The materials used in its creation have helped us to understand more about Leonardo’s drawing practices. The coarse paper may have been the only one available in France, but reflects the subject drawn and gives it more life. However, the roughness of paper may also incorrectly show Leonardo as sicker than he may have been, stopping delicate lines from being clearly drawn. The way the drawing has been constructed hints at its possible function; a teaching aid to illustrate how to draw an old man’s head or capture a particular expression. This leads to the potential viewer being a student, a friend or someone within Leonardo’s circle, but eventually and like many other drawings by late Renaissance artists, it was put into a collection by Franceso Melzi and appreciated as a drawing and a work of art in its own right.

The significance drawings had in the Renaissance is not as appreciated as it should be. From studying The head of a bearded man in profile we are able to understand how artists during the Renaissance valued drawings. Drawings were significant as they were the only means of recording ideas and show how artists formulated and built on them to further their art. By considering how drawings were made, located and viewed is important in understanding the nuances of their production, and in turn a greater understanding the artist that produced them. The location often played an important role through patronage, as artists would travel to where there was work, or be influenced by a region’s architecture, costume, flora and fauna, which they would have recorded in drawings for their own workshop catalogues. For Leonardo, being in France was significant as it allowed him the time in which to indulge himself, free from the stress of having to seek out and complete commissions, an environment that allowed the creation of The head of a bearded man in profile.

Leonardo’s drawings stand out partly because he preserved his drawings as teaching aids and to illustrate his many treaties, and partly due to Melzi’s care in preserving them in his collection. Leonardo’s reputation meant that his drawings continued to be preserved and valued in other collections. While Martin Clayton’s idea of The head of a bearded man in profile being a ‘self-image’ may be partially true, looking in detail at how it was made, where it was made, and the potential audience, allows for a much deeper understanding of the significance of the work, and how it can relate to Renaissance drawing practices. As an example of disegno it also shows the shift drawings made to be considered art. Through this we get an idea of how Leonardo’s mind worked, and how he continued his insatiable appetite for discovery, working his observations and designs into his paintings, and how he ‘achieved such stature in his lifetime that he became a legend’ (Bohn & Saslow 2012).

Image References

1. Da Vinci, Leonardo (c.1519) The head of a bearded man in profile [drawing] Royal Collections Trust (Figure 1)

2. Da Vinci, Leonardo (c.1517-18) The head of an old bearded man [drawing] Royal Collections Trust

3. Da Vinci, Leonardo (1492-98) The Last Supper [fresco] Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan


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Bohn, B. & Saslow, J.M. (2012) A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken. [online] Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/open/reader.action?docID=1120623# ProQuest Ebook Central. (Accessed 18/5/2019).

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Bodkin, H (2019) ‘Leonardo da Vinci never finished the Mona Lisa because he injured his arm while fainting, experts say’ The Telegraph, 4th May [online] available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/05/04/leonardo-da-vinci-never-finished-mona-lisa-injured-arm-fainting/ (Accessed on 7/05/19)

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