While he might now be considered one of the most famous figures from the
, and perhaps of all human history, Leonardo did not enjoy a particularly successful career, though his prodigious talent was certainly recognized. As a young man apprenticed in artist
’s Florence workshop, Leonardo established a reputation as a prodigal painter. By the time he was in his late teens or early twenties, the student had far outpaced his teacher.
, the lifelike angel that Leonardo contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ
(1468–77) so stunned his master that Verrocchio “resolved never again to touch a brush.” Vasari may be known to exaggerate, but after the Baptism
, Verrocchio didn’t complete any new paintings without a collaborator or assistant for the rest of his life. Leonardo’s refined eye for nature, and his near-perfect ability to convey three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, had heralded a new era of painting.
Leonardo’s mastery of oil painting—including his development of groundbreaking techniques like
, as well as his accurate rendering of natural phenomena—should have made him a sought-after artist. But when he finally established his own workshop in 1477, it was a commercial failure; Leonardo only received three commissions, two of which were never finished, and one never started. Within only a few years, he shuttered his workshop to seek work elsewhere.
Later in his life, prominent patrons from leading families like the Borgias, Estes, and Sforzas, as well as Catholic popes and French kings, commissioned artworks from Leonardo, as well as military and architectural designs. But although he conceived hundreds of inventions, there’s no evidence that any of them were ever built. None of Leonardo’s writings were published in his lifetime, and he barely finished most of his commissioned paintings. Only 15 are now known to exist, though the Annunciation (ca. 1472), the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1482), Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503–19), and even the Mona Lisa (1503–19), among others, remain uncompleted. His relentless curiosity (and perhaps perfectionism) hampered his productivity.
Leonardo’s younger rival,
, publicly made fun of
the elder artist for his inability to complete a work. Yet Leonardo played a long game: He often held onto his paintings for many years, returning to them as he learned more about anatomy and optics. Leonardo began the Mona Lisa
in 1503 and worked on it for the rest of his life (to capture
her elusive smile, he first tested on cadavers how cheek muscles move the lips). As Isaacson points out, the artist’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness
, begun in 1480, “seems to accurately reflect the anatomical knowledge that he gleaned later, including from dissections made in 1510,” particularly the treatment of the muscles in the emaciated saint’s neck.
Leonardo died in 1519, and when Vasari published his Lives of the Artists in 1550, he reserved great praise for the master: “The loss of Leonardo was mourned out of measure by all who had known him, for there was none who had done such honor to painting.…Indeed as Florence had the greatest of gifts in his birth, so she suffered an infinite loss in his death.”