Leonardo at Getty

Explore Getty’s two da Vinci drawings as they give a glimpse into the mind of this celebrated Renaissance polymath.

Leonardo da Vinci was a deeply influential painter, sculptor, architect, engineer (military, civil, and aeronautical), inventor, anatomist, cartographer, theoretician, and musician. We are still only beginning to comprehend some of his discoveries and achievements from the surviving pages of his handwritten notes and drawings. 

Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair (about 1495) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Physiognomic Sketches

Leonardo made numerous studies of distinctive faces in profile, some seemingly based on real people and others exaggerated beyond human possibility. 

The profile view enabled him to explore what he considered the four key zones of the human face—forehead, nose, mouth, and chin. 

By exaggerating their relative scale and proportion, Leonardo also subverted the classical tradition of idealized profile portraits. 

Leonardo referred to these faces as visi mostruosi (monstrous faces); we would call them "caricatures," a term first used about fifty years after the artist's death. Among his notes are scattered observations about people's faces he found interesting or appealing. He explored the way the human face revealed emotions, and in his writings he sought to link physical appearance and temperament. 

Sheet of Studies [recto], Leonardo da Vinci, probably 1470/1480, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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The Head of a Grotesque Man in Profile Facing Right The Head of a Grotesque Man in Profile Facing Right, Leonardo da Vinci, after 1500, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Perhaps made for the benefit of his students, Leonardo's sketches of faces were famous in his day and widely studied and copied. 

Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair (about 1495) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair

The sketch Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair was one of a number of profiles drawn by the artist on a larger piece of paper. Early collectors cut up most of these sheets to yield a multitude of tiny single-head drawings.

Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair (about 1495) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this study, Leonardo achieves extraordinary expression at a small scale of 6.6 × 5.4 cm (2 5/8 × 2 1/8 in.), which is particularly remarkable given the feather-quill pens in use at the time.

Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair (about 1495) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The hatched lines, slanting diagonally from upper left to lower right, show that the artist was left-handed, using his elbow as a pivot. Even his pupils and copyists who were right-handed would often attempt to mimic the great master’s left-handed style.

Studies of the Christ Child with a Lamb (recto) (1503–06) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Studies of the Christ Child with a Lamb (recto)

Here Leonardo studies the playful interaction of a child with a lamb. He first sketched numerous iterations in black chalk, then worked up to a few in ink. The sketches relate to the now-lost painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and a Lamb, and also informed his work on a painting of the same subject acquired by the French monarch Francis I in 1518, now in the Louvre.

Characteristically, Leonardo then used both sides of the sheet for other notes and sketches. Scroll through to explore the multitude of details found within this drawing sheet.

Top annotation (translated), with a reminder to consult a manuscript on geometry:
Incipit: Book of Areas by Savasorda the Jew, written in Hebrew and translated into Latin by Plato of Tivoli, the tenth Arabic year of the Saphar month [30 June 1116]. Chapter 1 on the universal propositions in geometry and arithmetic.

Annotation: Franco de S[imone?]

Letter Q with a long tail.

Three studies of the Christ Child with a lamb in brown ink over black chalk.

Additional study of the Christ Child with a lamb in black chalk.

Additional studies of the Christ Child with a lamb in black chalk.

Head of an Old Man, and Studies of Machinery (verso) (About 1497–1500) by Leonardo da VinciThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Head of an Old Man, and Studies of Machinery (verso)

Leonardo is one of the first artists who scattered numerous notes and sketches together on paper to develop his ideas, make memos, and explore concepts—in Leonardo's case on a vast range of subjects.

The mechanical studies here relate to the design of a press, probably an early laminating machine, since the adjacent notes mention fabric. Thinking ahead as per usual, Leonardo anticipated a solution for the wear on the axle: replaceable parts.

At the top the artist reminded himself to "See if the head of Altoviti is holding steady," corroborating contemporary reports that Leonardo made clay busts of old men.

Leonardo's mirror-writing, once thought to be an attempt to conceal his ideas, is now considered simply a by-product of his left-handedness. Scroll through to explore all of the details created by Leonardo on this sheet.

Top annotations (translated): See if the head of Altoviti is holding steady. Essapi dal caiano (possibly a reference to Persian soldiers). Taffeta coated with varnish, over which has been sifted cloth polling of various colors so as to resemble the surface of camel’s hair and other fabrics, is water resistant.

Sketch for the replaceable plate.

Design for a press or early laminating machine.

Annotation (translated): Part A is an iron [piece] to replace when it becomes worn by the roller, and similarly, it must be possible to exchange the roller when worn.

Sketch of the replaceable axle Annotation (translated): Replaceable axle

Sketch of the head of an old man.

Sketch of a leaf.

[inverted] Study of the Christ Child with a lamb.

Credits: Story

© 2023 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

To cite this exhibition, please use: "Leonardo at Getty" published online in 2023 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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