Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk

Portrait of an elderly man
Artist Leonardo da Vinci
Year c. 1512
Type Red chalk on Paper
Dimensions 33.3 cm × 21.6 cm (13.1 in × 8.5 in)
Location Biblioteca Reale, Turin

The portrait of a man in red chalk (circa 1510) in the Biblioteca Reale, Turin is widely, though not universally, accepted as a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci drew this self-portrait at about the age of 60. The portrait has been extensively reproduced and has become an iconic representation of Leonardo as a polymath or "Renaissance Man". Despite this, some historians and scholars disagree as to the true identity of the sitter.

Description and provenance

The portrait is drawn in red chalk on paper. It depicts the head of an elderly man in three-quarter view, his face turned towards the viewer. The subject is distinguished by his long hair and long waving beard which flow over the shoulders and breast. The length of the hair and beard is uncommon in Renaissance portraits and suggests, as now, a person of sagacity. The face has a somewhat aquiline nose and is marked by deep lines on the brow and pouches below the eyes. It appears as if the man has lost his upper front teeth, causing deepening of the grooves from the nostrils. The eyes of the figure do not engage the viewer but gaze ahead, veiled by the long eyebrows, with a sense of solemnity.

The drawing has been drawn in fine unique lines, shadowed by hatching and executed with the left hand, as was Leonardo's habit. The paper has brownish "fox marks" caused by the accumulation of iron salts due to moisture. It is housed at the Royal Library (Biblioteca Reale) in Turin, Italy, and is not generally viewable by the public due to its fragility and poor condition. Researchers have developed a nondestructive way to gauge the condition of the drawing by describing and quantifying the chromophores affecting the paper. Their technique, described in Applied Physics Letters (2014), will be used to assess the rate at which the image is deteriorating and should help with planning appropriate conservation strategies.[1]


The assumption that the drawing is a self-portrait of Leonardo was made in the 19th century, based on the similarity of the sitter to the portrait of Leonardo in Raphael's The School of Athens and on the high quality of the drawing, consistent with others by Leonardo. It was also decreed to be a self-portrait based on its likeness to the frontispiece portrait of Leonardo in Vasari’s Second Edition of The Lives of the Artists. Frank Zöllner states: "This red chalk drawing has largely determined our idea of Leonardo's appearance for it was long taken to be his only authentic self-portrait."[2]

However, the identification of the drawing as a self-portrait is not universally accepted.[3][4] The claim that it represents Leonardo has been criticized by a number of Leonardo scholars and experts, such as Robert Payne,[5] Professor Martin Kemp, Professor Pietro Marani, Carlo Pedretti, and Larry J. Feinberg.[6]

A frequent criticism made in the late 20th century is that the drawing depicts a man of a greater age than Leonardo himself achieved, as he died at the age of 67 and allegedly made the drawing between the age of 58 and 60. It has been suggested that the sitter represents Leonardo's father Piero da Vinci or his uncle Francesco, based on the fact they both had a long life and lived until the age of 80.[3][7]

Other portraits

Other portraits of Leonardo by other hands exist, apparently dating from the early 16th century up to the 19th century, pre-dating the identification of the red chalk drawing. These portraits present a different image of Leonardo than the elderly coarse-featured disheveled man as represented in the red chalk drawing. Another red chalk drawing, a profile portrait at Windsor, attributed to his pupil Francesco Melzi, and may be the earliest known surviving portrait. Other portraits, such as the Lucan portrait, or the engraving portrait by Raffaello Morghen are known to have been made after his death.

Several portraits are thought to exist of Leonardo as a youth or a young man. These include Verrocchio's statue of David and a possible self-portrait in the Adoration of the Magi; critics suspect that the lower right attendant in this painting represents Leonardo. In De divina proportione by the mathematician Luca Pacioli, which Leonardo illustrated, the artist may also have included a self-portrait.[8]

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to So-called self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.
  1. "Visual degradation in Leonardo da Vinci's iconic self-portrait: A nanoscale study".
  2. Frank Zöllner, Leonardo da Vinci, Taschen (2000)
  3. 1 2 Scaramella, A. D. "Artwork Analysis self Portrait in Red Chalk by Leonardo Da Vinci". Finearts.com. Helium Inc. Archived from the original on November 29, 2014. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  4. "Emergency Treatment for Leonardo da Vinci's Self-Portrait". news.universityproducts.com. Archival Products. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  5. Payne, Robert (1978). Leonardo (1st ed.). Doubleday. p. 344. ISBN 0385041543. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  6. Feinberg, Larry J. (29 Aug 2011). The Young Leonardo: Art and Life in Fifteenth-Century Florence. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1139502743. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  7. Ghose, Tia. "Vanishing da Vinci Portrait Could Be Saved by Science". LiveScience. Purch. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
  8. Shana Priwer, Cynthia Phillips (2005). 101 things you didn't know about Da Vinci: the secrets of the world's most eccentric and innovative genius revealed! Adams Media; pp. 167–168. ISBN 1-59337-346-5
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