National Gallery of Art - Ginerva de' Benci
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”
After viewing Leonardo's original work for the first time yesterday, I could not agree more! Visiting the National Gallery of Art has been on my list of things to do for a very long time, and somehow, it never happens. Yesterday, after looking at my planner and seeing the number of times I had penned this visit in and never made it, I decided I was going to do this now. So, in two hours (Yes, it takes me a while to get myself out of the house sometimes. Gosh, I wonder how it will be once I have kids!), I was dressed and ready and left the house.
I set out with a list of exhibitions I wanted to see and this was one of them. Before I go on, I would like to say that the moment I laid eyes on this painting, I was deeply moved. I had never known art to do that to me before—not in such a powerful way! This being the very first exhibit I viewed, it set the tone for the rest of my day at the gallery and I was awash in wonder and awe and beauty of the amazing painters and artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and many more. I soaked this all in and realized that I could spend a long time just looking at one painting. Good thing Aaron did not come with me - he would have been too fidgety :)
Ginerva de' Benci (obverse)
oil on panel c 1474/1478
The painting is titled Ginerva de' Benci. It is not a large painting and quite modest in size actually. This portrait of Ginerva is the only painting by the artist that is on public view in all of America. One painting of Leonardo da Vinci in all of America and I got to see it! Okay, back to the painting. Ginerva was a young Floretine lady who was admired by her contemporaries for her beauty, culture and character. Da Vinci painted her on the front side of a two-sided wooden panel. Her name Ginerva means juniper in Italian, and Da Vinci painted the juniper bush in the background.
The back of the panel consisted of a painting of a wreath of laurel and palm branches circling a juniper sprig. A scroll with the Latin inscription meaning "Beauty Adorns Virtue" is entwined among the plants.
This is what the National Gallery of Art has to say about this painting: "She was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker, and her portrait—the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas—was probably commissioned about the time of her marriage at age 16. Leonardo himself was only about six years older. The portrait is among his earliest experiments with the new medium of oil paint; some wrinkling of the surface shows he was still learning to control it. Still, the careful observation of nature and subtle three–dimensionality of Ginevra's face point unmistakably to the new naturalism with which Leonardo would transform Renaissance painting. Ginevra is modeled with gradually deepening veils of smoky shadow—not by line, not by abrupt transitions of color or light.
Other features of Ginevra's portrait reveal young Leonardo as an innovator. He placed her in an open setting at a time when women were still shown carefully sheltered within the walls of their family homes, with landscapes glimpsed only through open windows. The three–quarter pose, which shows her steady reserve, is among the first in Italian portraiture, for either sex.
At some time in the past, probably because of damage, the panel was cut down by a few inches along the bottom, removing Ginevra's hands. A drawing by Leonardo survives that suggests their appearance—lightly cradled at her waist and holding a small sprig, perhaps a pink, a flower commonly used in Renaissance portraits to symbolize devotion or virtue. Ginevra's face is framed by the spiky, evergreen leaves of a juniper bush, the once–brighter green turned brown with age. Juniper refers to her chastity, the greatest virtue of a Renaissance woman, and puns her name. The Italian for juniper is ginepro.
The vast majority of female portraits were commissioned on one of two occasions: betrothal or marriage. Wedding portraits tend to be made in pairs, with the woman on the right side. Since Ginevra faces right, this portrait is more likely to have commemorated her engagement. Her lack of obvious finery, however, is somewhat surprising. Jewels, luxurious brocades, and elaborate dresses were part of dowry exchanges and displayed a family's wealth."