Michelangelo: Quest for Genius

Art Gallery of Ontario

October 18, 2014 – January 11, 2015


Searching for Perfection

Michelangelo’s drawings in this section reveal a key part of the creative process. Geniuses struggle, as we all do, with problem-solving. Throughout his life, Michelangelo drew to invent and to explore answers to questions – for example, what pose would best express the transformation of Jesus from human to divine? Putting ideas on paper (which was inexpensive by this time) was the best method for the artist to experiment and brainstorm. As Michelangelo put it: “Always vary what you do, as it is better to make a mistake than to repeat yourself.” Taking risks is still an effective way to achieve originality.

Auguste Rodin also searched endlessly for solutions to artistic problems. His final monument to the writer Honoré de Balzac, for example, involved more than 50 studies.


Head of Leda

Michelangelo, Studies for the head of Leda, c.1630. Red pencil, 35.4 x 26.9 cm Casa Buonarroti

Second Thoughts

This work is thought to be one of the world’s most beautiful drawings. It’s a preliminary sketch for Michelangelo’s painting Leda and the Swan, which was destroyed for its sexual explicitness and is now known only through copies and prints. Using a male model, the artist studied the fall of light over the complex anatomy of Queen Leda’s head and then returned to explore the eye and nose in even greater detail. In the second drawing, look at his two attempts (pentimenti, or “second thoughts”) to capture the correct profile of the nose.


Staircase of the Library of San Lorenzo

Michelangelo Various Studies for the Staircase of the Library of San Lorenzo, Column Bases and Figures, c.1525 Pen and ink over red and black chalk 39.6 x 28.0 cm Casa Buonarroti

Try, try again

On top of four heads and a torso sketched by a pupil, Michelangelo drew three possible solutions for one of his most celebrated projects: a staircase in Florence. The stairs, commissioned by Pope Clement VII, were to provide access to a Michelangelo-designed library that would house the enormous Medici collection. Supremely confident, Michelangelo wrote to the Pope: “Have faith in me and give me a free hand.” The final results were novel: three sets of stairs flowing like a waterfall. The central staircase was reserved for the Holy Father himself.


Balzac MoMA

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Monument to Balzac 1897-1898. Bronze cast 1954. Presented in memory of Curt Valentin by his friends. The Museum of Modern Art, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The Endless Search: The Monument to Balzac

For Auguste Rodin, as for many artists, the creative process often involved more misses than hits. For his last major commission – a monument to French novelist Honoré de Balzac – he struggled to capture the larger-than-life personality of the deceased writer. Rodin travelled to Balzac’s hometown, studied photographs of him and read everything he had written. In all, Rodin spent more than seven years on the project and created 50 studies, including this one of a nude model similar in physique to Balzac.

Shocked by the realism of Rodin’s final design, the commissioners of the Balzac monument rejected it outright and hired instead a now-forgotten sculptor. The press had a heyday. A scandal ensued, from which Rodin never recovered. “It was,” he wrote, “my greatest defeat.” He was never paid for the design, and the original plaster model was never cast in bronze during his lifetime. Nevertheless, the final design remains one of his most stirring and powerful figures.

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Background image: Michelangelo, Study for the Porta Pia in Rome, c.1561. Black chalk, pen and ink with brown wash, white heightening. 47.0 x 28.0 cm Casa Buonarroti