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This painting was produced by Leonardo da Vinci between the years of 1501–1519, but would ultimately be left incomplete. It features The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne in a scenario which can be found several times across his career.
Despite its incomplete nature, the vast majority of the painting was finished and so there is plenty to appreciate to for those who see it in person in its present location, the Louvre in Paris. Some controversial efforts have been made in recent years to clean the piece, with some suggesting that the process was not in keeping with the artist's original work, whilst others have praised the restoration. The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne remains one of Da Vinci's most famous religious depictions.
The painting came towards the end of the artist's life, which is why it was not entirely finished. It also includes many of the technical developments that he made across his career, becoming one of the most accomplished paintings from a wide ranging oeuvre. His paintings became larger over time, with this piece being a good example of that, reaching over a metre and a half in height. There is also a combination of many genres together here, in a seamless delivery, with landscape, portraiture and religion all harmoniously fused into one image.
The artist spent much time on this topic, producing a large number of detailed drawings, some of which had fairly similar compositions to the painting in front of us here. Many of those have survived to the present day and help us to understand more about the artist's development of this work. In the years after this painting was produced a number of other artists would make their own copies of it, including a woodcut and other sketches. Da Vinci became much loved and respected across Europe, with many seeking to understand his technical work which helped to progress the Italian Renaissance onwards.
It was from the very early 16th century that Da Vinci started to focus on St Anne within his work, releasing a number of different combinations of the figures in front of us here. In all, this is believed to have been the fourth different interpretation on this topic by the artist, and the completed piece influenced a number of Italian artists shortly afterwards, with its popularity later spreading across the rest of Europe.
In this article we examine the qualities of Da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and place it into the context of the artist's wider career. There is also technical information on the painting, as well as guidance for those wishing to see the piece in person. It remains one of the most researched items from his career, in part due to the supporting sketches which cover similar compositions and also are to be found in major European art collections. The Louvre boasts one of the largest and most knowledgeable research teams of any museum in the world, and so has been able to examine the highlights of its collection, such as this one, in extraordinary detail helping us to learn much about it.
Table of Contents
- Size and Medium
- Large Image of the Painting
The most likely donor for this piece would have been King Louis XII of France, who a number of academics have claimed commissioned The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. It is suggested that the request was made shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1499, but the piece never reached him. King Louis XII also served as Duke of Milan and the King of Naples, but Leonardo da Vinci was already used to dealing with people of such status, having also worked with the previous Duke of Milan (see Lady with an Ermine), among others. Europe was full of political turbulence during this period, and so artists became used to adapting to changing conditions as power and wealth continued to change hands.
Whilst many related drawings have been uncovered from the artist's career, it has not been possible to confidently order them. As such, it is hard to determine which items influenced the next, and which ones may have been intended as a preparation for the painting in front of us here. The general concensus is that The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was the fourth and final iteration in the series, but its wide ranging, and disputed, period of creation is loosely placed at around 1501–1519.
A charcoal and chalk drawing exists in the collection of the National Gallery in London which is particularly similar to this composition, though with the addition of Saint John the Baptist. Any supplementary detail is also left out, where as the painting features a complex landscape across the background. Elsewhere in the city, the British Museum also has some simpler experiments by the artist into individual elements of the scene, such as considering how the Virgin Mary and St Anne could be positioned alongside each other. Whilst these drawings are technically impressive, they lack the connection between mother and child as delivered in colour by the oil painting.
The composition features the Virgin Mary reaching out to baby Jesus who is playing with a small lamb. Watching over them all is Saint Anne. There is a joyful atmosphere within the painting, as the two women enjoy the sweetness of the young boy who looks on for guidance from his mother. Setting the scene for this charming moment, we have a scene leading towards a dramatic backdrop of mountains. The artist provides an abrupt comparison between foreground and background, using light browns for the ground beneath the figures, and the a light tone of blue for the scenery behind. There is also a tree to the right hand side which helps to provide some vertical balance to the piece.
The Virgin Mary is identified by the blue clothing which was regularly used to signify her role within Renaissance paintings. Whilst symbolism is included within this piece, one can enjoy it in a purely aesthetic sense, with a charming family scene delivered by Da Vinci, when at the height of his artistic abilities. At this point in the development of western art, there was not really a landscape genre, but elements of countryside would appear across the backgrounds of religious artworks. The same could be said for portraiture, in the way we understand it today, as previously one would only see religious figures captured in this way. Da Vinci helped to change all of this as he developed and widened his oeuvre across the full span of his lifetime.
The theme of the The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne had been in the artist's mind for many years, and it may have been that he came up with this composition prior to knowing where it might be hung. This was rare, as typically up to this point, Renaissance artists would be commissioned to produce something with a specific location in mind, but things were now starting to change. Da Vinci felt comfortable in working on a number of highly detailed drawings that would contain a guide to the final painting.
It was now becoming possible for artists to sell privately to individuals who were not initially involved in the commission. Artists would therefore start to receive more opportunities and choices as a result of that, and different genres could also potentially be covered now to match the widening of tastes in the market. That said, Da Vinci remained loyal to religious themes throughout his career, never entirely turning away from them, even though he experimenting successfully with secular themes for many decades.
Analysing the painting itself, we notice how similar in age Saint Anne and the Virgin are - this is purposely done in order to create a feeling of closeness within the family. They also are sized and placed in a similar manner, almost appearing as two sisters or even the same figure, just in different poses. The artist is delivering an ideal age for both women, even though this does not seem realistic when considering they are mother and daughter. There is also a particularly dramatic scene in the background, which reflects the artist's interest in geology and also reflects his understanding of how the world was formed and changed over time.
The most obvious use of symbolism within the painting is, of course, the fate of the lamb. The Virgin attempts to separate Christ and the lamb, whilst St Anne represents the Church and therefore encourages the baby to continue. The reason for this is that the sacrificed lamb would represent Christ's Passion, and therefore the destiny of the Cross. The artist would have grappled with this idea for some time before finding a composition that could deliver all of this meaning together.
Size and Medium
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is 130 cm × 168.4 cm (51 in × 66.3 in) and was produced using oil on poplar wood. The artist used tempera in conjunction with oils in the earlier part of his career, but by the turn of the century is believed to have worked exclusively in oils in his standalone paintings.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne remains part of the permanent collection of the Louvre gallery in Paris, France. It also holds his iconic Mona Lisa alongside a whole plethora of art from the European Renaissance period. Interestingly, there are even items from their collection from other great names who have studied Da Vinci's work within the museum themselves.
The painting was acquired by the Louvre in 1793 and remains within their Département des Peintures, or Department of Paintings. It has been included in a number of exhibitions fairly recently, though all based within the Louvre itself, or its sister-venue in Lens. The Louvre has a good number of artworks from Da Vinci's career, making studies of his life fairly easy to organise, and always guaranteed to interest the public, such is the continued interest in his artistic achievements, all these centuries later.
The wealth of drawings which relate to this painting have ensured that its correct attribution to Da Vinci was arrived at fairly early in this painting's existence. The same cannot be said for some of his other major works, with a number not being attributed confidently to his hand until deep into the 19th or even 20th century.
Da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne came right at the end of his career, and had he lived longer, perhaps this painting might have been completed. The wide time span given to this work, from around 1501–1519, means that it is hard to create a precise timeline for the late part of his career. The artist would likely have switched between different paintings during their development, and so his sequence of works would have been a little more fluid and unclear.
The artist likely would have re-visited this piece several times over, and potentially also asked others from his studio to complete elements of it, although the precise role of others in this painting remains questioned and debated. The most common belief is that several assistants would have worked on the landscape scene in the background, but that Da Vinci would have focused on the key portraits in the foreground.
In terms of where the painting sits alongside his other work in oils, there was a series of Leda and the Swan which is from around the same period, circa 1505-1515. There was also two famous portraits which would certainly have been started well after The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, namely St John the Baptist from 1513-1516 and a fuller length portrait of the same figure from 1513-1519. There was also the iconic Mona Lisa which was originally begun in 1503-1506, before being re-visited later on.
Find some quick facts about the painting below. Many questionmarks still remain regarding this painting, such as its precise dating. In many examples, our knowledge is limited to approximate estimates, rather than specific details.
- The painting is believed to have been the fourth iteration in an exploratory series by Da Vinci which focused on St Anne
- The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is 130 cm in width and 168.4 cm in height
- This oil painting was acquired by the Louvre in 1793
Although incomplete, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne could be valued at $150m-200m in today's market. This approximate valuation was derived from comparing the piece to other recent sales from the artist's career, as well as considering its size and prominence within his overall career. Experts may have their own opinions, of course, and this valuation is just a guide to what might be expected, were the piece ever to come up for sale. In reality, the Louvre's collection of Da Vinci paintings can be considered of great cultural importance to the French state, and it is hard to imagine these items ever being sold.
Large Image of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
This stunning piece features a large amount of detail, even though is was never entirely completed. For this reason, we have included a larger image of the painting below, which better displays some of the beauty of the original work. Some of the drapery within this piece is particularly impressive, as well as the facial expressions and joy found on some of the figures.