In the last century the popular idea of Leonardo’s work was still vague. Many of the pictures on which it was based, and practically all the drawings, were far from being authentic and gave a false notion of his character.
It thus became the first duty of criticism to clear away the parasitic growths which obscured the true shape of his genius; and while this process continued, it absorbed the best energies of all considerable students of Italian art, and left no time for criticism in a more humane sense. But after fifty years of research and stylistic analysis, we have at last reached some sort of general agreement as to which pictures and drawings are really by Leonardo. Great problems of attribution remain to be solved, but we can no longer hope to settle them by comparison of morphological details.
We must look at pictures as creations not simply of the human hand, but of the human spirit. And so we can take up the history and criticism of art where it was left, shall we say, by Pater, with the difference that Pater in his beautiful essay on Leonardo writes, in large part, about work which Leonardo did not execute. He is not concerned with Leonardo, but with the Leonardesque, and his essay suffers from some of the unreality which affects any study of an abstraction. Had he known the full range of Leonardo’s own work, how much deeper and more living it would have become!