“It’s a revolution”, says Pierre Curie who headed the team which restored the Saint Anne with the Virgin and the Child, “it’s a revolution for the Louvre and it’s going to change the image we have of Leonardo da Vinci.
It’s the first Leonardo da Vinci work to be restored by France since World War Two. In itself a breakthrough, particularly as the Louvre is where the largest number of da Vinci’s limited paintings are kept. And Curie notes that da Vinci experts the world over were awaiting the completion with eager anticipation.
For visitors however, the mere visual contrast of this pyramidal composition before and after the restoration process, is literally an eye-opener.
The almost-defining yellowish-brownish-grey tint, which had blurred the outlines and veiled the painting by the great Renaissance painter, have gone.
Previously, looking at the Saint Anne, it would have been hard to imagine the brightness of the actual colours Leonardo had chosen – the lapis lazuli blue of the Virgin’s robe for example, or the cherry red lacquer pigment of the sleeve.
Curie notes that sfumato was a word Leonardo never used himself, and is mistakenly associated with him. It came from varnishes applied to the painting in the 19th century to preserve it:“There was a fear of cleaning the painting in the 19th and 20th century, and so the varnish was very thick. We have not removed it, we have thinned it, leaving a “patina”. We haven’t touched Leonardo’s own materials, and we have left the passage of time and history on the painting. Techniques are different today.”
Yet more has been revealed in the painting which Curie describes as perhaps da Vinci’s most beautiful in the Louvre.
“Discovered during the conservation and cleaning, water which was almost invisible can be seen at the feet of the Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin, running over exquisitely painted stones,” he says. “We are now completely sure this painting was not finished. The hand of the child, the tail of the lamb, some parts of the landscapes described with quick brush-stokes.”
Importantly for art historians, it is also clear now that da Vinci used a technique similar to that used in enamel painting.
The exhibition around the Saint Anne at the Louvre, traces the different stages of Leonardo’s composition of Saint Anne. For one, there’s the famous “Burlington House Cartoon” from the National Gallery in London. Several other sketches also accompany the work. Some lent exceptionally from Queen Elizabeth II’s collection.
And where will Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child go after its two-year absence from the Louvre’s Grand Gallery?
Not far from the Mona Lisa, La Joconde. Of course. It will have an important role, as visitors will also now be able to better understand the link between Leonardo da Vinci and the generation of 16th century Florentine painters who followed him.
“It will hang next to paintings like those of Raphael who was difficult to understand when you saw this very dirty Leonardo without colours. We can now see where the bright colours came from. We can see the normal evolution of colour in the Renaissance. Sfumato was an anomaly,” says Curie.
Next for a spruce up, the Louvre’s most-visited Leonardo work Mona Lisa? “It’s a possibility,” says Curie with a broad smile, “the Louvre’s painting department could consider Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks”.
The restored Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child, by Leonardo da Vinci exhibition runs from Thursday 29 March to 25 June 2012. At the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Mona Lisa attracts eight million visitors to the Louvre a year.
Leonardo da Vinci started painting Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child in 1503.
He took it with him to France when invited to the court of François 1 in 1516.
It was unfinished at his death in 1519.