The Burlington House Cartoon

One among the uninitiated, that is, in the field of art & painting, like me, would but naturally, assume that I am talking about the stuff you see in magazines and newspapers. The cartoonists are very important in today’s society, they provide the irony laced with humor in a single frame, but then again there are the extended versions called stand up comedians who do it on the idiot box over a period of an hour or so. There are also some of these characters in certain big cities who even end up as politicians and become a general nuisance to society, but this is not about any of them.

So, this is not at all about any kind of cartoon, but a very famous person, who was after all, a regular genius, who possessed amongst other great talents the talent called artistry – thus one who also became a great painter. The man is Da Vinci. But then again, I will not write too much about his great talents in anatomy, dark medicine, Opus Dei, inventions, scientific activities and so on, but will try to stick to a single cartoon, an unfinished one at that. Some would also recall that Da Vinci rose to limelight again recently thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, a fine book.

Why talk about an unfinished painting? Simply because it caught my eye when I first saw it and because I ended up purchasing a small print copy of it which I now see and look at many times daily. Though it does not beat the fascination I have for Ravi Varma’s milkmaid (which I would call an eternal painting or sketch), the everlasting face of the lady Sugunabai, it evokes different feelings, like how would it have looked had it been a completed glorious painting! Now, most people have this idea that a genius creates these in a single stroke of a brush, but an analysis of the Mona Lisa has shown that the final product evolved over a number of attempts which can be seen under the final one.This painting itself had only the basic sketch & outline done by Da Vinci and his students took care of the rest, or so it seems.

So this is about the painting titled the Burlington house cartoon, one that can be seen at the National gallery London. The last time I was there was when my late mother visited us in the UK in 2006 and we all went around sight seeing London. The picture caught my eye (so did a couple of others and I will spare you, the reader, for the time being, about those) and I purchased a copy.

This cartoon was done in the 1498-1510 time frame of his life, during the heydays of contractual work for the Italian Church, and here let me borrow the words an onlooker penned watching Leonardo at work, doing the ‘last supper’. “He would often come to the convent at early dawn; and this I have myself seen him do. Hastily mounting the scaffolding, he worked diligently until approaching darkness compelled him to stop, never thinking of food at all, so concentrated on his work was he. On other occasions he would stay there for three or four days without touching the painting, only coming in for a few hours to remain in front of it, with folded arms..."

There is a certain mystery in this painting, of that I am sure, and I hope that Dan Brown or somebody of his genre will come up with a story sometime, doing justice to the mystery in the story. As testimony, here is what Pope Leo X said of Da Vinci - "Alas, this man will do nothing; he starts by thinking of the end of the work before its beginning." Now if this were true, why is this unfinished? Why did it not have an end? Therein lay the enigma of Da Vinci, his troubled and drifting mind. You can see the pencil sketches of what the picture would have looked like. It would have taken a few more strokes of the brush to complete, but why did Da Vinci, a master of procrastination delay completion even though it would have meant completion of a contract? Did he lose the religious intent with which it was started? Did he know something that we did not? And of course, experts have come up with hidden images in the painting that a cursory look would not show. I must also say that readers with a lot of interest should look at the other painting at the Paris Louvre, which is titled ‘Virgin and child with St Anne’ which is somewhat similar to this cartoon.

To describe the painting using somebody else’s words, it is a combination of two themes popular in Florentine painting of the 15th century: the Virgin (Mary) and Child with St John the Baptist (son of Mary's relative Elizabeth) and the Virgin and Child with St Anne (Mary's mother). The drawing, in charcoal and black and white chalk, covers eight sheets of paper glued together. They say - Unusual for a cartoon, the outlines have never been pricked or incised, indicating that the stage of transferring the design to the panel that would then be painted was not reached. The work's alternative title, The Burlington House Cartoon, refers to its private home at the Royal Academy until 1962. So why is this painting called a cartoon in the first place? Well, in the old days, the word had a different meaning than what it is today. The word cartoon meant a preparatory drawing for a big piece of art, such as a wall painting or tapestry. It did evolve from the word Carton – meaning thick pasteboard where such draft drawings were made.

As for the painting itself some excerpts from Lairweb’s analysis

The oil painting of the Virgin And Child With St. Anne is thought to date from 1507-1513. An account of the cartoon for this painting indicates it may have been modified at some stage, perhaps as an afterthought. A description of the original sketch describes St. Anne as restraining her daughter from discouraging the Child in pulling the lamb's ears. This is not what can be seen today; our view is of a rather detached watching grandmother. Some are fascinated by the sight of St. Anne supporting her heavy daughter on her knee, and with no visible means of support. Others are convinced that hidden in the folds of the draping over the arms is the shape of a vulture, the head and neck can be found in the blue cloak encircling the Madonna and the bird's tail points towards the infant's mouth. There is more fascination about the infant’s left hand, which is meant to signify something quite personal to Da Vinci.The Virgin and Child With St. Anne has been retouched, and was left unfinished with the drapery covering the Virgin's legs being little more than an outline. Why, is unknown, though it may have been due to Leonardo's increasing interest in mathematics and subsequent engagement as engineer in the service of Cesare Borgia. At the same time this painting was in progress Leonardo was experimenting with preparations which he hoped would result in an improved varnish for his work; unfortunately these experiments were a failure. This mattered little; Leonardo still had 10 years to live, but by 1508 his career as a painter was drawing to a close and after maybe as much as ten years of intermittent work on this painting he gave up.

Some believed that the painting was commissioned by Louis XII after seeing ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Virgin of the rocks’ around 1499, as a gift for his wife Anne de Bretagne. Others believe that it was done after his return to Florence in 1500 as guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop where, according to Vasari, Leonardo created the cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, a work that won such admiration that "men and women, young and old" flocked to see it "as if they were attending a great festival. This cartoon was bequeathed by Da Vinci to his loyal companion Francesco Melzi. Actually the project was awarded by the monks to Filippino Lippi, but he suggested they approach Da Vinci whom he thought a superior painter. Da Vinci worked on it initially, but never completed it. Then Lippi was called on to finish it, but he died before finishing it. Peruguino finally completed it as we see it today. It is valued by experts at around $35 Million, these days.
But strangely, this object was vandalized in 1987. It was damaged in July 1987 by a man who entered the gallery with a shotgun concealed under his coat. The man, Robert Cambridge, told the police his intent had been to show his disgust with ''political, social and economic conditions in Britain.'' The pellets did not penetrate the Cartoon. But the blast pulverized a section of protective laminated glass, tearing a hole about six inches in diameter on the Virgin's robe. Since then this charcoal and white drawing has been restored, the story of the restoration is quite interesting, and can be read in detail in this NY Times report.
Studying the sketch itself is daunting for one not trained in Renaissance art and the religious period when Vasco Da GAMA was on his way to India - This illustration for The Burlington House Cartoon is interesting because of the marks around the edge of the figures and the almost undecipherable scratches for the lower parts of the bodies. Both of these were because of Leonardo trying to find a satisfactory manner in which to have them sit in space. But I will not delve any further. About the various possible secrets, I will refer you to the detailed studies and another blog.
Getting back to Da Vinci himself, later studies conjuncture that he may actually have been of Arab or Turkish heritage based on the study of his fingerprint found in one of his paintings. The revelation will lend weight to the increasingly popular academic theory that Da Vinci's mother, Caterina, was a slave who came to Tuscany from Istanbul. It is also stated that he probably had over 21 half siblings from his father Pieor’s (a Florentine notary) five relationships. Caterina herself was apparently married off to one of his workers - a laborer called Antonio di Piero del Vacca. According to the papers, the marriage took place only a few months after she gave birth to a boy called Leonardo. At the age of 60, after her husband died, Caterina moved to Milan where Leonardo was living. The pair developed a distant relationship and Leonardo stayed in touch with his mother through a series of letters.

As you can see, this basic introduction to the painting takes you so many facets of history, sometimes fascinating, sometimes violent covering the person, the painting, the Burlington house, and many other things, if one chose to take such avenues or alleys.

Or we could simply gaze at the picture and marvel at the expressions created by the genius, like I do, every day.

Leonardo's projects, c. 1500-1519 - Claire J. Farago
Leonardo da Vinci, the artist and the man - Osvald Sirén
Burlington house history



Very interesting post.
Our visits to the museums in London in 2007 also threw forth some fascinating works.
Though I did not see this particular one , I saw other cartoons, and learnt for the first time what they meant.
Thanks for the nice read.

Anonymous said...

As always, a pleasurable read! Always stop by here expecting to learn something new and I'm never disappointed! :) Keep them coming...


Kamini said...

This was such an interesting and informative read. I had no idea about the theory of Da Vinci's antecedents, of his possible Turkish heritage. That is fascinating! I have to read and re-read this post to fully absorb all the wonderful information you have provided.

shinojcv said...

Nice post ,Ever since the book "DaVinci code" published people started to show more interest in the history of Christ,Papacy and Davinci.It is nice to know that many are still interested in history.I think you are also a big fan of Dan brown.
I read some where about the secret library in Vatican.If there is anything like that can you post .
Thanks for your post

Maddy said...

Thanks Raji, Littertatuse..
Everything has a story behind it and thus there is no dearth of story tellers..right??

Thanks Kamini..
da Vinci is a really interesting character and his life a turbulent one. But to study him is not easy, as much of his story is unknown.

Thanks Shinojcv..
I liked the dan brown books, though i have not read the latest.The library of Vatican and the secrets it holds - well unless you have been there you cant find out I guess.

Happy Kitten said...

Went hunting for Da Vinci after having read u.... the paintings still remain a mystery to me..

Dan's book on Da Vince Code was interesting..

nd the same way I went hunting to check if Christ came to India.. maybe a post on that?

Maddy said...

da Vinci's paintings have oodles of mystery..he was a very complex man..

I had promised JK months ago that I would write about Christ in India, but have yet to complete my studies for it is a topic I have to be careful about..

I will do it soon...