Why a DC Museum Acquired This Odd Drawing

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It’s by Leonardo da Vinci, not Dr. Seuss.

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Photograph courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Gift of Dian Woodner.

Okay, so it’s not exactly “Mona Lisa.” But this tiny drawing—just two and a half by two inches—is a genuine work by Leonardo da Vinci, and it was recently donated to the National Gallery of Art. “Grotesque Head of an Old Woman,” as it’s called (for obvious reasons), dates to the late 1400s, and it’s one of about 30 such studies he did on physiognomy, or human facial expressions and features. “He’s trying to get at how to represent personality and character and individuality,” says Jonathan Bober, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery. The way Leonardo exaggerates the woman’s appearance in order to capture something about her was remarkable at the time, Bober says. Plus, “there’s a sympathy to the simple fact of rendering such a physically grotesque type, but with such care and with such delicacy.” (The museum currently has no plans to put the drawing on permanent display.)

So why does it look like something from a kids’ book? Bober suggests a link between this odd image and modern comic depictions: While “by no means a direct line, it’s an ancestor of the tradition that leads to modern cartoons, political cartoons, and even animated children’s cartoons.”

This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Katie Kenny

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