When the well-to-do talk about paying high prices for the work of living artist the question that eventually arises is: "Is he or she collectible?" That means, is the artist's work likely to increase in value over time and (economics aside) become a valuable asset to an individual's collection artistically speaking. Of course collecting art is a relatively recent hobby, dating back no more than five hundred years (yes, in art history terms that's recent). Probably the first "collectible" artist was a man whose name would not exactly be foreign to our ears. He became collectible during his own lifetime and apparently was not above profiting from this phenomenon. In fact, he became collectible due in no small part to his own efforts. He shamelessly promoted his talent whenever he could, he was a genius as a painter as well as quite a number of other art and scientific areas, and his paintings are relatively rare. Because of all this, he was internationally known as an artist. It was the perfect combination to become "collectible." His name was Leonardo, one of only a handful of artist to become known merely by his first name.
The name Leonardo da Vinci rings up images of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, but probably his best work is less well known. Actually, we're talking here about not one but two paintings, each similar but different. The Virgin of the Rocks was originally commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco, Milan. When the painting was nearly finished, Leonardo capitalised on his "collectibility" and sold it to the King of France. This painting ended up in the Louvre. A year later, in 1508, he painted a second version, which in many ways was superior to the first, in order to fulfil the terms of his original contract. This painting also became collectible. It was sold, 278 years later, to a Scottish painter, who sold it to an English Lord, who sold it to the British National Museum in 1880.
Both paintings are pure Leonardo. Both are "arch-shaped." Both depict the Virgin, the Christ-child, a slightly older John the Baptist, and unlike most Madonna and Child paintings, a fourth figure, that of an angel. The grouping is formed in front of an intensely rocky background with mountains and a small stream beyond that. The colour seems more unified in the second version and the overall effect more natural. There is none of the Renaissance classicism to be found in other paintings from this era. The beauty in the faces of the figures is more idealised, Leonardo's own image of beauty as seen in the Mona Lisa. His interest in geological formations seems to have dated from his childhood in Vinci, not far from Florence, where the Arno River cuts through a deep gorge. In the end, quite apart form his paintings, Leonardo himself became collectible. As some men collected art, Francois I, King of France, collected artists. In 1517, he persuaded Leonard to spend the final years of his life in his court. Legend has it Leonardo died in his arms.