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Work Portrait of Isabella d'Este

Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries

Portrait d'Isabelle d'Este

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo T. Le Mage

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Varena Forcione, Hélène Grollemund

Leonardo da Vinci left Milan in 1499 when the French army invaded Italy. On his way to Venice he stopped at Mantua, where Isabella d’Este asked him to paint her portrait. This famous drawing is a sketch for the portrait that was never painted; despite its fragile state of conservation, it is one of Leonardo’s finest head-and-shoulders portraits, here with the head in profile. It is also the only known drawing by the master that is highlighted with several colored pigments.

Imitating nature...

Isabella d’Este wanted to have the best possible portrait of herself painted, sculpted, or struck on a coin. In 1498, she determined to surround herself with the most eminent contemporary artists and find the best portrait painter, one who could produce a perfect imitation of nature; her choice fell on Leonardo da Vinci. When in Venice, Leonardo da Vinci showed his portrait of Isabella to his friend Lorenzo da Pavia, who wrote to the Marchesa on March 13, 1500: "Leonardo da Vinci is in Venice, he has shown me a portrait of Your Ladyship that is very lifelike. It is very well done and could not possibly be better." Despite Isabella’s insistence, the painting was never done.
In his sketch, Leonardo used various pigments (sanguine and chalk), different tones of black, and finely hatched and smudged red and yellow ochre to obtain the passage from light to shadow on the face and hair. Contrary to claims by Vallardi and almost all subsequent authors, there are no traces of pastel. A very pale white applied to the bosom (covered by a piece of lace called a “modesty piece”), the forehead, and the cheek, accentuates the slant of the shoulders and the shadow of the neck.

...to perfection

Though unfinished, this sketch is remarkable for its proportions, and for the foreshortening of the bust; it is also striking for the ambiguous choice of pose. The perfectly linear profile, eyes gazing beyond our field of vision, contrasts with the turn of the body. The portrait in profile may have been the choice of the Marchesa herself, who was thus portrayed on the bronze medal made by Gian Cristoforo Romano in 1497-1498. The clear-cut profile of the face, its use of space, the slant of the turning shoulders, the attention paid to the folded hands and the finger pointing to the book are all touches that distinguish this work from the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (1489-1491, Cracow, Czartoryski Museum) and from the Portrait of an Unknown Woman (c. 1495-1500, Paris, Musée du Louvre). This portrait of Isabella d’Este can be seen as the fruition of Leonardo’s experimentation since the 1490s, and a preview of what was about to follow: the cartoon of the Virgin and St Anne (London, National Gallery), and the Mona Lisa (Paris, Musée du Louvre). The portraits of Isabella d’Este and the Mona Lisa seem to represent Leonardo’s "progressive idealization of the portrait"—in other words, his attempt to create portraits that were lifelike yet of a perfection related to universal beauty.


Yriarte Ch. , « Les relations d’Isabelle d’Este avec Léonard de Vinci », in Gazette des Beaux Arts, 1888, XXXe année, t. XXXVII, p. 121-131.

Berenson B. , The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of the Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, Londres, 1903, vol. I, p. 159-150 ; vol. II, n° 1062.

Demonts L. , Les Dessins de Léonard de Vinci au musée du Louvre, Paris, 1921, n° 17-17bis

Reale Commissione Vinciana, I manoscritti e i disegni di Leonardo da Vinci pubblicati dalla Reale Commissione Vinciana sotto gli auspici del Ministero dell’Educazione Nazionale.

Disegni , a cura di Adolfo Venturi. Fascicolo VI, I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci dalle fine del 1499 al 1509, Rome, 1949, p. 11, fig. p. 12, pl. CCXXXIII

Viatte F. , Dessins du Louvre, école italienne, Paris, 1968, n° 14

Pedretti C. et Dalli Regoli G. , I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci e della sua cerchia nel Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe della Galleria degli Uffizi a Firenze , Florence, 1985, p. 79, 80 sous n° 29 et 30

Arasse D. , Léonard de Vinci. Le rythme du monde, Paris, 1997, p. 394, 399, 404, 406, fig. 270

Marani P. C. , Léonard de Vinci, une carrière de peintre, Milan, Arles, 1999, p. 158, 175, 245, 339, fig. p. 174.
Viatte F. , Léonard de Vinci. Isabelle d’Este, Paris, 1999.

Bambach C. C. , Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop. Theory and Practice, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, p. 23, 91, 111-114, 263, 277, 388 note 32, 414 notes 173, 178, pl. IV

Viatte F. , Léonard de Vinci, dessins et manuscrits, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2003

Technical description

  • Leonardo DA VINCI

    Portrait of Isabella d'Este


  • Black and red chalk with stump, ochre chalk, white highlights on the face, throat, and hand. Original black chalk lines are visible in several places: face, hair, veil on the forehead, neck, garment covering the breast, left shoulder. Paper prepared with white in the upper left and right parts.

    H. 61 cm; W. 46.5 cm

  • Bartolommeo Calderara (b. 1747); Vittoria Pelulso, the widow Calderara; Domenico Pino (c. 1760-1828); acquired in 1829 by Giuseppe Vallardi, 1855 catalogue, p. 66 n°2, among the framed pieces; Chevalier A.D. de Turin, Paris sale, December 10, 1860, n° 72; acquired by the Musée Impérial.

    MI 753

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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