IT IS PROBABLY safe to say that the critics and art historians who developed the legend of Leonardo's unsurpassed greatness as a painter have had the color rise to their cheeks on rereading some of their own straining superlatives. No painter has suffered so severely at the hands of loving critics. The infallibility of his greatness has so deeply permeated our thinking and our judgment that an occasional call for revaluation is regarded either as treason or as part of the stock-in-trade of an habitual iconoclast.
It is true that Leonardo's life was a really great life; that the facets of his genius were innumerable; that his mind was fantastically universal; that he anticipated the modern age. this. We have contemporary accounts to help us visualize his amazing vitality and activity--as architect, engineer, sculptor, anatomist, and painter.
But what have we today to establish his greatness as a painter? No more than a half-dozen pictures. The largest and most important is in ruins, so much so that nothing at all of the original is retained. Another, his most famous portrait, is an admittedly unfinished work. The remaining pictures are certainly questionable masterpieces. In short, we have no evidence. While it would be pleasant and warming to believe on faith that Leonardo must have been a great painter, it is nevertheless a betrayal of honest criticism to make that assumption and then to inflate it inordinately, using doubtful examples to support wishful theorizing.