This month marks 500 years since the great artist’s death. I love the fact that he is considered an artist. We all know that he was much more than just this. He was a polymath and all-round genius: a musician, a scientist, a mathematician, a writer, an engineer, a sculptor, a draughtsman and a painter. So why is he considered an artist? Why is this the term that we apply to his many levels of genius?
The art historian Gombrich states that “all this exploration of nature was to him first and foremost a means to gaining knowledge of the visible world, such as he would need for his art”; that is his pursuit of science was a means to his understanding the visual world and therefore art.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if artists today had the time, capacity or even mental space to pursue all the avenues that Leonardo both pursued and excelled in to achieve his painting ability. And yet he produced few oil paintings, perhaps fewer even than those attributed to him, but that’s for another time.
In 15th Century Italy, artists were expected to have a deep knowledge of mathematics, literature, music and culture. Alberti’s treatise De Pictura presumes that artists have a knowledge of all the liberal arts, and goes deep into the philosophies of mathematics and perspective.
Cennino Cennini’s treatise “Il Libro dell’Arte” is more advice on studio practice, not only giving advice on artists’ materials but recommendations on the way in which an artist should live, including following a healthy diet, only drinking light wines and avoiding the distraction of women!
Post Leonardo, artists may have had the superficial knowledge that he acquired and experimented with, but few experimented with all the different aspects as he did. In order to produce their paintings most, while being well read, were content with the craft and study of painting as a single subject.
I consider myself a painter and not an artist. I feel that the term ‘artist’ is too lofty and that I am just scratching the surface of what it is to be a painter, and in my lifetime to reach the level of being an artist, would be unattainable.
Today there are many painters; very accomplished craftsmen who are painters, there are also many philosophers and thinkers who use paint as a medium to express themselves. But if Leonardo is considered an artist, then I don’t believe there are any true artists living today and perhaps only a handful have ever lived.