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National Gallery Collects Leonardo da Vinci’s Strange and Sublime

It's tiny. A mere 2 ½ by 2 inches, Leonardo da Vinci’s Grotesque Head of an Old Woman, which the National Gallery recently acquired, packs a visual punch in what seems like an impossibly small space. Wrinkled skin, a prominent nose, and a small chin come alive in just a few strokes of an ink pen. Nearly imperceptible lines stand in for the small folds of the upper lip to suggest a lack of teeth.

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Head of an Old Woman, 1489/1490, pen and brown ink on laid paper; laid down, Gift of Dian Woodner, 2022.84.1

The drawing, a gift from Dian Woodner, is one of a series of about 30 studies. Identical in small format, style, and technique, they are from a period when Leonardo was deep into studying human faces and bodies. The artist owned an early treatise  on physiognomy and wrote about it in his notebooks.

Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings Jonathan Bober tells us that Leonardo drew a lot of “grotesque” heads. But each one is unique. Like the others, the National Gallery’s appears to have been a stand-alone exercise (rather than a sketch for a painting).

“Drawing helped to inform the unprecedented range and subtlety of human expression in Leonardo’s paintings,” Bober says. “He was the first European artist to use drawing to go beyond idealized figure types, to attempt minute physical variations and reach beyond surface appearance to evoke personality and convey character.”  

These drawings influenced artists across Europe, even north of the Alps. This woman appears in several contemporary copies—the National Gallery owns one by Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s closest follower.

An older man and woman with exaggerated facial features are shown from the chest up as they face each other in profile in this horizontal drawing on tan paper. To our left, the woman has a protruding, deeply wrinkled face with a blunt nose, squinting eyes, and a dramatically downturned mouth. Loose folds of skin sag down her neck and chest. She wears a C-shaped headdress with a loosely drawn veil hanging down the back. A delicate flower sticks out of the ample, wrinkled decolletage encased in her low-cut bodice. The man opposite her has deep-set eyes over a long, hooked nose and a lumpy, potato-like chin jutting out from his craggy face. His hair is covered by a headdress with a padded brim. A long scarf drapes over his head and across his chest. His shoulders and back are suggested by a few short pen strokes.

Francesco Melzi after Leonardo da Vinci, Two Grotesque Heads, 1510s?, pen and brown ink, Gift of Mrs. Edward Fowles, 1980.63.1

Leonardo’s old woman stands in stark contrast to his Ginevra de’ Benci, the only one of his paintings in the Americas and one of the stars of the National Gallery’s Italian Renaissance collection.

Bober and other curators believe the painting of 16-year-old Ginevra to be an engagement portrait and one of Leonardo’s earliest experiments with the then-new medium of oil paint. The pale, porcelain complexion and delicately curly hair we see supposedly belonged to the real Ginevra. The woman in the drawing, on the other hand, like other “grotesques,” is imaginary.

This square portrait shows the head and shoulders of a young woman in front of a spiky bush that fills much of the background except for a landscape view that extends into the deep distance to our right. The woman's body is angled to our right but her face turns to us. She has chalk-white, smooth skin with heavily lidded, light brown eyes, and her pale pink lips are closed. Pale blush highlights her cheeks, and she looks either at us or very slightly away from our eyes. Her brown hair is parted down the middle and pulled back, but tight, lively curls frame her face. Her hair turns gold where the light shines on it. She wears a brown dress, trimmed along the square neckline with gold. The front of the bodice is tied with a blue ribbon, and the lacing holes are also edged with gold. A sheer white veil covers her chest and is pinned at the center with a small gold ball. The bush fills the space around her head with copper-brown, spiky leaves. A river winds between trees and rolling hills in the distance to our right. Trees and a town along the horizon, which comes about halfway up the painting, is pale blue under an ice-blue sky.

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967.6.1.a

The carnation at the old woman’s breast—a traditional symbol of love and betrothal or marriage—may indicate that Leonardo intended this drawing as a caricature of exactly the type of portrait he made of Ginevra. In his copy, Melzi paired the woman with an old man—perhaps for the same reason.

“Leonardo was inspired by the monstrous, the astounding, and the unusual—and the beautiful and the sublime,” says Bober. “These two contrasting aspects coexisted in his mind and constitute two of the major spheres around which his studies of the human condition turned.”

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