OIL PAINTING: The Virgin and Child with St Anne, c.1510
To one who is not blinded by familiarity "The Virgin and Child with St Anne" must make a strange impression. It is like the speeded up picture of vegetable growth or some very complex machine, designed to rotate and placed on a rotating platform. All the parts contribute to this movement and also have most intricate relationships with each other; and for a few seconds we are absorbed in following these complexities, oblivious of the subject matter, with a mental exhilaration similar to that of a musician following an elaborate fugue. But very soon our attention is fixed by the central pivot of the whole mechanism, the head of St Anne, smiling and withdrawn. How does her inscrutable inner life relate to the contrapuntal movement of the whole group? We feel certain that there is an absolute interdependence between the strangeness, the beauty and the scientific elaboration which strike us simultaneously when we first look at Leonardo's Virgin with St Anne.
But what about the figures in " The Virgin and Child with St Anne "? They are in a technique quite unlike that of the other paintings by Leonardo which hang near them in the Louvre. They are painted lightly, almost as if in water colour, and in places they seem to be unfinished, or rubbed away by a restorer. But Leonardo disliked the conventional use of oil paint, and loved to experiment with techniques. His drawings became looser and more evocative as be grew older; and there is a light, feathery study for the actual head of St Anne, very different in touch from the sharpness of his early drawings. I used to think it subtler and more mysteriously feminine than the painting; but we now see that in the creation of a powerful image like the St Anne some delicacy of individual character must be sacrificed, and we have come to believe that no one but Leonardo could have invented and executed the head which dominates this hermetic triangle.