Updated: May 6, 2019
The artist I most wanted to draw like when I was about fifteen. I so wanted to be able to draw an angel like the one we see here in Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks, I still think she is stunningly beautiful.
There are two versions of this painting and the jury is still out on whether the National Gallery version was actually painted by Leonardo!
Virgin of the Rocks - Louvre
Go on have a quick scroll up and down... I'll wait...
Virgin of the Rocks - National Gallery
You'll notice some major differences between the two versions - brightness being the most obvious - although the most striking thing for me is the angel. In the Louvre version, she is robed in red and looking directly at the viewer - this was painted as an alter piece so it was high up on the wall - she draws you in, and points directly at St. John, it's all about him.
In the later version in the National Gallery the Virgin is now the centre of attention, in her brightly painted Ultramarine* and gold robes - as you would expect - this was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception for a chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande, Milan in 1483.
...And the angel, she is in a supporting role and glances across at St. John, who is now depicted with a cross so we know who he is ...and she isn't pointing at anything or anyone!
This tells us that Leonardo - if it was him - painted the second version of the same painting, possibly because the brotherhood weren't happy with the first version, perhaps they felt there was too much emphasis on St. John and not on the Virgin.
Maybe the brief wasn't specific enough, maybe Leonardo didn't show them some roughs first?!
Ah, the pitfalls of creating someone else's vision .. of being a jobbing artist.
Comparing the two here I have to say that the children in the Louvre version look more child like, more innocent. The face of the Virgin and the angel seem more radiant too. The more I look at this earlier version the more I love it, even the plants look more realistic and fit for the cave setting.
My theory: the original was rejected by the Brotherhood, Leonardo may have started the second version, roughing in the basic landscape, working up the figures - they do look like his work, especially the angel ...but didn't finish it - he was renowned for not finishing projects and I find it hard to believe he'd happily paint the same subject twice, he was a culture vulture, he'd be onto the next project. Then someone else steps in, his students maybe, they all had students to help pay the bills, adding flowering plants that are botanically incorrect**, I really don't think Leonardo would have got that wrong, he did many drawings of flora and was meticulous about the details so why would he?!
* Ultramarine was the finest, and most expensive blue pigment available to Renaissance painters, often used for the robes of the Virgin Mary it symbolised holiness and humility.
** Others agree on this particular aspect: