School of One, Times Two

Despite the artists’ many similarities, large-scale exhibitions of the work of  M. C. Escher and Leonardo da Vinci have never been exhibited together. The co-presentation at the NCMA marks the first time they will be shown in such close proximity, highlighting the shared interests of these two progressive, peerless minds.

Left: M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948, lithograph, 11 1/8 x 13 1/8 in., Private collection, Texas, © 2015 The M. C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.com; Right: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester (Sheet 1A, folio 1r) (detail), 1508—10, ink on paper, 11 2/3 x 8 1/2 in., Courtesy of Bill Gates, © 1994 bgC3

“There’s a saying that Escher comes from a school of one, forging his own path with little consideration of contemporaneous artistic trends or a desire for fame, popularity, or financial prosperity,” notes David Steel, NCMA curator of European art. “The same can certainly be said of an artist whom Escher greatly admired, Leonardo da Vinci.”  

Solid dodecahedron (Dodecaedron Abscisum Elevatum Solidum), woodcut, after a drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, published in Fra Luca Pacioli, Divina proportione, Venice: A. Paganius Paganinus, 1509, plate XXXIIIThat admiration is certainly evident in Escher’s work, perhaps most obviously in Stars. Showcasing inspiration from mathematics and geometry, it also borrows from Leonardo’s exploration of geometric skeletons and solids, in particular Leonardo’s drawings for his friend and Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli. Pacioli’s book, Divina proportione, was written in 1496—98, when both were in Milan, and published in Venice in 1509.

Beyond the art, Leonardo and Escher shared a keen intellectual curiosity that extended well beyond the field of art into the sciences and mathematics.

“Knowing what I know about Escher, his interests around any topic were rarely just casual,” said Steel, noting similarly intense passions from Leonardo. Here he explores five shared traits and interests of this “school of one, times two”:

Islamic culture

During the 15th century, Islamic culture emerged as an important source of new learning in the fields of science, philosophy, and medicine, and as a geographic passageway for Asian ideas into Europe. Leonardo seems to have had some familiarity with the writings of Muslim philosophers, astronomers, scientists and engineers, probably through his contact with contemporary scholars. Escher was one of the few artists of the 20th century incorporating these traditions into his work: His exploration of tessellations and the decorative division of planar surfaces, which can be seen in Smaller and Smaller and Circle Limit IV, is credited to his 1936 visit to the Alhambra, an Islamic palace in Granada, Spain.

M. C. Escher, Smaller and Smaller, 1956, wood engraving and woodcut in black and brown, printed from four blocks, 15 x 15 in., Collection of Dr. Stephen R. Turner, © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.com

Lefties, in reverse

Only about one in 10 people are left-handed, and studies have suggested lefties often excel in math and architecture. Escher and Leonardo certainly fit the bill, with Leonardo taking it one step further: In the Codex Leicester, he uses “mirror writing” to record his ideas from right to left, instead of the standard left to right. And because Escher was a printmaker, he first had to visualize all of his compositions “in reverse,” as the compositions he carved into his wood blocks, inscribed on mezzotint plates, or drew on lithographic stones would then be reversed in the printing process.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester (Sheet 4B: folios 4v & 33r) (detail), 1508—10, ink on paper, 11 2/3 x 17 in., Courtesy of Bill Gates, © 1994 bgC3


The central theme of the Codex Leicester is water, but this quickly expands into astronomy. Leonardo hypothesized that the moon’s surface was covered in water, and the crescent that appeared on it was the sun’s reflection off of water. As a passionate amateur astronomer from childhood, Escher filled notebooks with observations of stars and became a member of the Dutch Association for Meteorology and Astronomy. His fascination with astronomy is hinted at in works like the crater-flecked landscape Other World and the representation of the Big Dipper (which the artist knew as “The Plough”) in his Phosphorescent Sea.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester (Sheet 2A, folios 35v & 2r) (detail), 1508—10, ink on paper, 11 2/3 x 17 in., Courtesy of Bill Gates, © 1994 bgC3

M. C. Escher, Cycle, 1938, lithograph, 18 3/4 x 11 in., Collection of Dr. Stephen R. Turner, © 2015 The M. C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.comStubbornly independent

Both artists preferred to fill their circle of friends with people outside of the art world. Even while running his busy atelier, Leonardo followed a natural curiosity and self-motivation fueled by his brilliant observational skills on then-unexplored topics like soil erosion. Escher also forged his own path as a stylistic loner; instead of studying peers in the art world, he drew inspiration from medieval Islamic architects, mosaicists and tile makers, crystallographers, and musicians.


Another intersection of mathematics and design, chess piqued the interest of both artists. Leonardo may have collaborated on another of Pacioli’s projects, De ludo scacchorum, a 48-page manuscript on chess containing drawings of chess pieces and more than 100 chess problems, while Escher included a portion of a chess board and chess pieces, arranged in an actual game position, in his Metamorphosis prints. To this day Escher’s works have inspired contemporary admirers to design Escher-inspired chess boards and pieces.

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