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The Madonna of the Carnation was produced by Leonardo da Vinci in around 1472-1478, most likely in the latter part of that period. It perfectly represents a young artist trying to balance his experiences as an apprentice with his own ideas and innovations which would slowly come to the fore over the coming years.
The artist had worked for a number of years as an apprentice under the great master, Andrea del Verrocchio. It was within this large studio that he spent time in the company of a number of skilled contemporaries, such as Sandro Botticelli, and also learnt directly from Verrocchio himself. Initially after leaving the studio he would continue in the same artistic direction as taught to him in those early years, but eventually he would start to incorporate some of his own technical innovations. He would later move into other disciplines, some of which had been introduced to him whilst working alongside Verrocchio. Indeed his master decided to stop painting once he saw the brilliance of his young pupil, preferring to concentrate on sculpture instead, where he was at his strongest.
The Madonna of the Carnation represents the early period of Da Vinci's career, where he was mainly given commissions by religious institutions. He followed the agreed standards of Italian art at that time, such as in how he depicted Madonna and Child. Whilst being labelled as a genius by many, he was entirely human, and therefore needed time to perfect his technical work. One can see issues with this painting which were not repeated in later portraits, and so we see an artist evolving into how we remember him today. The artist's study drawings give a clearer indication of this path, as he practiced sketching the human body over and over again.
"...A Madonna, a very fine work...; one of the details in this picture was a vase of water containing some flowers, painted with wonderful realism, which had on them dewdrops that looked more convincing than the real thing..."
This article examines The Madonna of the Carnation in detail, helping to explain the items of symbolism found within the composition, as well as placing the piece within the overall context of the artist's career. It is also compared with some of the artist's other depictions of the Madonna. We also discuss the influences that would have fallen upon the artist during this point in his lifetime, and just how far evolved he was as an artist by the mid to late 1470s. How much of the true Da Vinci had appeared by this point, and how were his experiences as an apprentice still directing his artistic choices? We need to look across the full breadth of his career before we can determine where The Madonna of the Carnation fits within it.
Table of Contents
- Meaning behind The Madonna of the Carnation
- Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna Paintings
- Size and Medium
- Large Image of Madonna of the Carnation
The earliest part of Da Vinci's career was devoted to religious art and he would have relatively little input in the types of projects that he would complete - much was decided by those who requested his services, or by his master and other senior members of the studio. He was very much still learning his craft as a painter at this stage, but those who are knowledgeable of his oeuvre can spot some subtle touches within The Madonna of the Carnation which point towards the innovative years that were to follow. We see within this painting plenty of the influences that would shape his early artistic direction, and were prevalent with Italian art at that time, and it would take many years before he would work independently, with his own ideas and technical innovations.
Meaning behind The Madonna of the Carnation
The carnation is used within this painting to signify the Madonna's love for her child, Jesus. This is strengthened by how mother and child gaze at each other within this composition. Additionally, the child reaches out towards the carnation, as if accepting his mother's love. Italian artists would use this symbolism within their work fairly regularly, with a number of Renaissance artists having produced dozens of depictions of the Madonna. These proved in-demand at the time, and so commissions for them would be frequent. The likes of Botticelli would devote much of their oeuvres to this sub-genre of religious art, where as Leonardo da Vinci managed to find a little more variety within his career as he branched out in landscape and secular portraiture, as well as other disciplines such as sculpture, architecture and invention.
The Virgin Mary is seated within this depiction, with the baby Jesus on her lap. The two focus on gaze towards each other, underlining their strong bond of love and protection. Mary is identified by the predominantly blue outfit she wears, a standard method that Renaissance and Baroque artist used to capture this significant figure. The baby is sat on a cushion whilst reaching out his arms. His mother holds her left arm out to play with her child, whilst her right arm helps to support him, with her fingers wrapped around his back. Her dress is beautifully decorated with rolls of material and a small item of jewel on her chest. Da Vinci brings strong light down onto these two figures, with the rest of their room in shadow, which helps to build a hierarchy within the scene.
At the very back of the painting we find several arch ways which lead through to a series of mountains in the far distance. These slowly drift off and fade into the bright sky, typical of how this artist worked with that genre as a background feature. The tones of blue also complement the Virgin's outfit in the foreground. A vase of flowers is placed to the right hand side of the painting, and other details may have been lost due to the artwork ageing and darkening over the centuries that have passed since. The architectural features at the back of the room include arcades, window jambs, columns and a window seat.
Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna Paintings
The Madonna would appear several times over within Da Vinci's career, and was particularly common in the earliest part, as it was then that the artist was most focused on themes of religion within his work. Alongside The Madonna of the Carnation, we also see the Madonna with The Annunciation which came at around the same time and experts have uncovered many technical similarities between the two. There is also the Benois Madonna which followed soon afterwards, plus Madonna Litta which came about in the following decade. Virgin of the Rocks came in two versions across the turn of the century as well as Madonna of the Yarnwinder and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, with many more images of the Virgin to be found in his preparatory drawings too. It is feasible that other paintings may also have been produced by Da Vinci on this topic, but that were later lost or mis-attributed to another painter.
Valuations of this painting would inevitably vary, but The Madonna of the Carnation by Leonardo da Vinci can certainly be considered a premium artwork, with a value to match. It represents his early career very well and is today accepted by most as from his hand. Higher profile paintings have acquired valuations in the hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, with this piece falling a little below. Were it ever to come up for sale, one might expect the painting to receive up to $100-150m, such is the significance of the artist's career within the history of western art, as well as the rarity with which one of his original paintings ever comes up for sale.
Most academics today agree that The Madonna of the Carnation was from the hand of Leoardo da Vinci, but for many years the painting was actually attributed to his master, Andrea del Verrocchio. With the piece being completed between the years of 1478-1480, it came during the period in which the artist was emerging from the shadows of his apprenticeship. Even after setting up his own studio, Da Vinci would keep close ties with Verrocchio, collaborating on a number of projects including The Baptism of Christ, which arrived just a few years before the painting in front of us here. Art historians have re-evaluated this period in Da Vinci's development and concluded that The Madonna of the Carnation features a number of hallmarks specific to the style of this artist, helping them to confidently attribute the piece to him. Other artworks have proved more problematic, where evidence points to both master and apprentice completing different elements of the same work.
In terms of the painting's provenance, little is actually known about this artwork until as recently as the late 18th century. It is likely to have arrived from Italy at around that time, and no documentation has been found to explain its journey up to that point. It was acquired in 1889 by its present owners (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), having passed through a number of wealthy German private collections for around a century. It's connection to Da Vinci ensures that it remains one of the institution's biggest highlights.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Madonna of the Carnation can be found in the permanent collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany. They possess amongst the finest selections of Italian art anywhere in Germany, also boasting work from other prominent names such as Titian (Vanity, Charles V), Sandro Botticelli (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), Fra Angelico (Entombment of Christ) as well as Giotto's Last Supper. It is extremely rare to find a Leonardo da Vinci painting within Germany, making the addition of The Madonna of the Carnation particularly significant - it is believed to be, in fact, the only da Vinci painting permanently displayed within the country.
Size and Medium
Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Carnation is a relatively small artwork, measuring just 62 cm × 47.5 cm (24 in × 18.7 in). It was produced using oil on wooden panel, which was the case for most of his paintings. Da Vinci would rarely work on panels smaller than this, and would sometimes even glue several together for his larger, more detailed artworks - in fact, even this small piece was probably conceived from two pieces of wood attached to each other. The artist was working in a more conservative manner in this early part of his career, still building his confidence as an artist and yet to take on some of the larger projects which would appear later in his career. With it's religious themes, Madonna of the Carnation is entirely typical of his work in the 1470s and 1480s, with influence from his earlier apprenticeship still looming large on his artistic approach.
Some experts have suggested that elements of tempera was also used in this painting, which is possible considering how Da Vinci combined tempera with oil in a number of his earlier paintings. There are also suggestions that it was specifically poplar wood that was used for the panel, but this has not yet been entirely confirmed. There are also some subtle issues with the oils which have not lasted as well as later Da Vinci paintings, in part because he was still learning his craft as a painter in the late 1470s.
Repairs and Alterations
The dimensions of the painting have been altered over time, with parts initially cropped out around the borders, before additional wood was added to both the left and right hand side (1.5cm). The panel piece is known to have warped over the centuries, and with some cracks also appearing on the back of the work, preservation techniques have been used at various points in order to best protect the painting into the long term. Indeed, a number of panel paintings have been transferred to canvas in order to avoid some of these common issues, particularly with items from the Italian Renaissance.
Large Image of Madonna of the Carnation
See below for a larger image of the original painting, allowing us to enjoy more of the detail added by Da Vinci. Many will be unable to view this artwork in person, and so larger images such as this are the best alternative means to understanding more about it. Da Vinci was famed for his subtle tones and lifelike features which cannot be appreciated from smaller images, and there are also now cracks and other variations which have occurred over the past few centuries which can be seen up close as well. With regards Madonna of the Carnation specifically, there is plenty of variety and detail to enjoy right across the scene, with a sprawling landscape appearing between arches at the back, as well as carefully crafted drapery on the Madonna's clothing.