This detailed red chalk portrait drawing captures an old man looking in our direction. For many centuries, this image has been how we imagine the artist to have looked, with few other examples to counter this view. Recent scholars have, however, raised questions as to the identity of the old man, though the attribution of the drawing itself is conclusively that of the great master.
Leonardo practiced his talents as a draughtsman throughout his life, taking on a wide variety of content which ranged from head portraits such as this, to studies of anatomy, inventions, and even elements of botany and the animal kingdom. He continually looked for new challenges and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure accuracy within his work.
Leonardo's portrait drawings tend to fit into two main categories, one featuring young men, and the other switching to the elderly. Whilst this potential self portrait fits very much into the latter, there is not the grotesque forms which we do find in some of his other works. Instead, we feel that a fairly precise representation of reality is delivered here.
The majority of his portraits would be side-on, or straight-on, where as in this piece the sitter is angled slightly to our right. Leonardo used pen and ink or chalk in many of his portraits, with these being his preferred options. He would tend to alternate between red and black chalk, and sometimes his drawings would include white heightening, which had the effect of increasing contrast.
The artist had started using chalk in the 1490s, having previously relied on metalpoint instead. His use of ink and water would then arrive later, by which time he was already highly accomplished in using chalk. During the artist's lifetime he would experience the price of paper falling considerably, and this made it much easier for artists to practice their craft without too much expense.
The artist would use hatching techniques in order to produce the shadowing on the right hand side of the model's face, built around a series of fine lines which produce the rest of the artwork. This piece was well formed throughout and must have taken a relatively long time in comparison to the artist's less complex compositions. Whatever the identity of the elderly man, it is a beautifully executed portrait drawing.
This article examines the drawing in detail, outlining the various views around its attribution and also the identity of the portrait model. We discuss where the piece is located today, and how its condition is protected. There is also a larger, higher resolution image of the drawing below, as well as technical information on the piece itself, such as its size, date and medium.
Table of Contents
- Size and Medium
- Famous Self Portraits from the History of Art
- Large Image of Leonardo's Self Portrait
The portrait features an elderly man with pronounced wrinkles and other signs of ageing. He stares off to our right, and so whilst facing roughly in our direction, he does not look straight at us. The artist goes into great detail on his hair and beard, with much of his face covered by this untrimmed image.
Much of the drawing has become damaged over time, leaving small speckles right across it. The left hand side of the portrait, as we look at it, also appears to be slightly more contrasting, giving a slight suggesting of shadowing on that side. It is the eyes, with thick, overhanging eyebrows which initially captures our attention, with a prominent nose and pursed lips.
Da Vinci would learn most of his skills as a draughtsman whilst studying under Andrea del Verrocchio. It was here that he worked his way up, from apprentice to fully fledged artist over a period of several years. He would be introduced to many different disciplines during his time here, with drawing being considered a fundamental skill which was essential to most other art forms.
The 1510s were significant within Da Vinci's life as a draughtsman. It was then that he tried out a greater variety of mediums for his sketches. Often there would be tinted paper, which would roughly match the tones of his chalk. He continually looked for new challenges too, once he felt that he had mastered a particular genre.
The purpose of this portrait was simply to replicate the image of the sitter in chalk. There was no "meaning" beyond that, though the artist regularly used elements of symbolism elsewhere in his career. Da Vinci's religious artworks were commonly adorned with symbolic additions, such as shapes depicting the cross, or clothing coloured in a certain way as if to identify certain figures.
TThat said, the portrait does give an impression of an elderly man with wisdom, thanks to the long beard which hangs down. It is likely that this was simply how the figure looked, but in some cases portraits have been adapted in order to give a particular impression which was not exactly faithful to reality.
Leonardo da Vinci's Self Portrait would hold a considerable value, but any figure given by experts would have to be quite a wide range. It is highly unlikely that its present owners would ever choose to part with this important artwork, but also any price realised at auction would depend on the interested parties bidding on it.
Some have claimed that the piece might be worth as much as $100m, possibly more, when considering that it holds the image of the artist himself, and also is one of the most famous drawings that he ever produced, but ours is only an loose estimation and experts in the field would be much more qualified to value the piece themselves.
Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk (Self Portrait) can be found at the Royal Library in Turin, Italy. Sadly, due to the poor condition and relative fragility of the piece, it is rarely on display to the public. Efforts continue to be made to research the piece using unobtrusive measures, as the importance of this piece to the history of western art is entirely understood.
Various dates have been attributed to Leonardo's Self Portrait, and the most accurate span would be circa 1510-1515. Some scholars have given the more precise year of 1512, but the slightly wider period feels somewhat more reliable.
There are many factors which form this estimated date. Firstly, Da Vinci here looks particularly old and in real life he would have been in his early sixties, matching what we see within this portrait. There was also a small written comment added to the drawing at a later date, but an unknown person, which reads:
"...Leonardo da Vinci, portrait of himself as an old man..."
Debate still rages on as to the identity of the sitter for this portrait, or self-portrait. It seems unlikely that this mystery will ever be resolved. In terms of the attribution of the drawing, it is widely accepted as a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
One of the questionmarks that remains which casts doubt on the claim that this was a self portrait is in the age of the artist at the time. The image looks much older than a man in his early sixties, and so potentially it may actually have been a portrait of the artist's father or perhaps another family member.
A number of potential portraits of Leonardo have been compared to this drawing, and there are some clear differences in most of them, which again casts further doubt on it being a self portrait. This is why many refer to this drawing by the alternative title of Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, so as to avoid entering this controversial topic.
Size and Medium
Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk was produced using red chalk on paper. It is a small artwork, sized at 33.3 cm × 21.6 cm (13.1 in × 8.5 in), though this was typical of his portrait drawings.
Typically, his paintings would be twice as large as this, sometimes even more than that for his more complex pieces. He would use paper in standard sizes and then add multiple studies on the same sheet. In this case, though, he covers the full sheet with a single portrait, which allows him to apply much more detail, making this piece more of a completed artwork than a mere study.
The early provenance of this drawing is unknown, and we only have information from around 1839 onwards. A collector by the name of Giovanni Volpato would acquire this piece in that year, and he would then sell it on to Prince Charles Albert of Sardinia, who was particularly interested in Renaissance drawings.
It would then eventually make its way into the Royal Library, Turin, where it remains today. The relative lack of documentation around this piece has also made it harder to conclusively prove that it is indeed a self-portrait of the artist, rather than just another of his portrait drawings, or perhaps a work by a member of his studio.
Famous Self Portraits from the History of Art
Self portraits have always offered us an insight into the artist behind some of these extraordinary paintings and drawings from past centuries, and some of the contributions to this genre have become synonymous with their careers. This self portrait has become famous due to the popularity of Leonardo, but also the lack of any other potential self portraits of him.
In terms of other related artists, one of the most delightful contributions would have been from Albrecht Durer, the German painter who gave us the impressive Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight. There is also this Raphael self-portrait which is typically the artwork used to illustrate this master visually. Finally, you might also be aware of Titian's self portrait, from Madrid.
Many of these artists would produce self portraits throughout their lifetime, and these would help historians to chronicle their progress, even tracking their health and happiness over time. Some artists have found this genre as a means to release their inner thoughts, perhaps even as a mechanism to cope with their own anxieties.
Large Image of Leonardo's Self Portrait
For those looking to appreciate some of the finer details added by the artist within this famous drawing, then look below for a larger, high resolution image of Da Vinci's Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. Few drawings from his career have been documented in as detailed a fashion as this, and it has only been relatively recently that his sketches have been documented and researched quite as thoroughly.
Previously, the artist was known only as a painter, and was treated by scholars in a way that reflected that. Modern research techniques have enabled us to connect drawings with paintings more accurately and also to differentiate Leonardo's sketches from others by members of his studio.