This lesson will look at da Vinci's sketches, specifically his portraits, to understand da Vinci's appreciation of the human form and how he presented both the beauty and ugliness that existed in the world.
While one can find a definition of "beauty" and "ugly" in any dictionary, there is no universal understanding of what is beautiful and waht is ugly. We know that when something is beautiful it is aesthetically pleasing to us and we enjoy looking at it, while something that is ugly more or less disturbs us and is something we do not wish to stare at for a long period of time.
Leonardo understood and was fascinated by the contrasts that existed in the world between humans; how some humans could be aesthetically pleasing to look at while others contained flaws that made others characterize them as "grotesque" or "ugly." Through his love of this contrast in human features, da Vinci showed no favoritism for one over the other: he could be found looking through several different models to help him find the "perfect" face to use in his religious paintings, while also spending hours wandering the streets and following people he found "grotesque" in order to remember their faces for when he recreated them in his sketches. He believed that in order to capture these two sides of human appearnace one needed to see them juxtaposed together, otherwise one would not be able to appreciate the different elements of both the "beautiful" and the "ugly." Da Vinci found this helpful for other artists because it allowed them to see the different variations that existed of beautiful and ugly people in the world. In one of his notebooks, da Vinci comments on his own struggles with reconciling what he thought was beautiful compared to what types of beautiful actually existed; he notes that artists must be careful of this inner conflict otherwise they run the risk of creating something that could never exist in nature and, therefore, appear false in their works.
While never directly discussing what he considered to be beautiful, we see from da Vinci's sketches that he took the task of defining human features carefully. We see sketches of people who would be considered "beautiful" by Renaissance standards, as well as sketches of people who would be considered "grotesque." This lesson works with these sketches not in order to attempt to describe da Vinci's personal preferences, but instead show his realistic approaches to portraiture consistent with his desire to depict the human form in the most honest way possible with the gifts he was given. Similar to his anatomical sketches, da Vinci seeks to capture the human form as accurately as he can and as a result of this, he does not discriminate on which types of people he sketches, but instead welcomes those individuals who might seem displeasing to the eye into his notebooks.
In exploring this lesson, students will:
- Learn about da Vinci's fascination with the human form
- See various types of humans and learn that there is no one "type" of person considered to be beautiful
This discovery will require students to:
- Examine sketches of individuals and determine whether or not they would be considered "beautiful" during Renaissance times.
- Delve deeper into what constitutes "beauty"
Using this Resource:
- Visual Arts teachers will be interested in the examination of which elements of each individual da Vinci chose to emphasize via the details in the sketches.
- Social Studies teachers will be interested in the examination of beauty standards during the Renaissance, including how artists sought out their models for certain religious works of art.
- Language Arts teachers will be interested in the discussion of the meaning of the words "beautiful" and "ugly," including how the word "grotesque" was used during the Renaissance compared to how it is used today.
For sample related classroom activities, download the PDFs available under Related Resources.
The objects in this lesson are just a beginning. We encourage you to explore the Museum's online collection through this web source - or even better, to visit the Museum and walk through the physicla galleries - to look for other objects that will provide further insights into this exhibition.