alter Horatio Pater describes the development of Leonardo da Vinci as an artist. He builds his argument that da Vinci was special and used his talent to paint characteristically deep and important pieces. Pater's technique of referring to other artists of the Renaissance help to show the significance of da Vinci's developments of specific artistic motifs, like sitting women or pictures o the Madonna. Da Vinci used images from his childhood, smiling women and the motion of water, to paint luxuriant and completely rendered art. Pater's piece shows how art criticism can be an education in psychology, history, and religion to understand the relevance of art. Specifically, Pater focuses on the famous Mona Lisa, now housed in the Louvre, for its important contribution to how art can capture a mood in subtle ways.
La Gioconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo's masterpiece, the revealing instance of his mode of thought and work. In suggestiveness, only the Melancholia of Dürer is comparable to it; and no crude symbolism disturbs the effect of its subdued and graceful mystery. We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least.* As often happens with works in which invention seems to reach its limit, there is an element in it given to, not invented by, the master. In that inestimable folio of drawings, once in the possession of Vasari, were certain designs by Verrocchio, faces of such impressive beauty that Leonardo in his boyhood copied them [123/124] many times. It is hard not to connect with these designs of the elder, by-past master, as with its germinal principle, the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo's work. Besides, the picture is a portrait. From childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dreams; and but for express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his ideal lady, embodied and beheld at last. What was the relationship of a living Florentine to this creature of his thought? By what strange affinities had the dream and the person grown up thus apart, and yet so closely together? Present from the first incorporeally in Leonardo's brain, dimly traced in the designs of Verrocchio, she is found present at last in Il Giocondo's house. That there is much of mere portraiture in the picture is attested by the legend that by artificial means, the presence of mimes and flute-players, that subtle expression was protracted on the face. Again, was it in four years and by renewed labour never really completed, or in four months and as by stroke of magic, that the image was projected?
1. Pater had mentioned da Vinci's talent for capturing the subtle nature of people's expressions. How does Pater use the word "subtle" or "subdued" or a similar phrase, like "the expression beneath the human countenance" to convey the powerful control da Vinci has over his art?
2. Does Pater's initial statement that the La Gioconda is da Vinci's masterpiece bias the reader? Although it is a tremendous piece of art, does Pater leave enough reader to form his or her own opinion? How has the tradition of non-fiction writing evolved, in regards to the respect of the readers' opinions?
3. Pater uses "We" in the middle of this paragraph to describe a shared experience of our own childhood imagination and visual memory. Why does Pater shift here to include the audience in understanding da Vinci's art from the inside?
4. Pater continues after this section to personify the subject of La Gioconda as an ancient undead creature, who has had a mystical existence like other women of legend. Is this a technique to make his contemporary readers excited about art? Does Pater use visual language to engage the readers mind as well as their senses? What does Pater stress: the biographical elements of da Vinci's art or a collective psychological experience?
Last modified May 2003