Leonardo da Vinci was in his early forties when he made this Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair in Milan, Italy around 1495. He was just beginning The Last Supper mural for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Inventor, artist, mathematician, naturalist, anatomist, engineer, and philosopher, Leonardo epitomized the quintessential Renaissance man. As a celebrated figure sought for important commissions, Leonardo worked for some of the most prominent families of Renaissance Europe, including the Medici of Italy and King Francis I of France.
While he is now best known for works that celebrate notions of ideal human proportion and beauty, such as the Vitruvian Man and the Mona Lisa, his interest in physiognomy led him to seek out the full range of human expression and facial features. As the early artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) recorded, Leonardo was "so delighted when he saw curious heads, whether bearded or hairy, that he would follow anyone who had thus attracted his attention for a whole day, acquiring such a clear idea of him that when he went home he would draw the head as well as if the man had been present." This Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair was one of numerous drawings of exaggerated facial form that da Vinci called visi monstruosi, “monstrous faces” in English. They were eventually bequeathed to Leonardo’s pupil, Francesco Melzi, who made them available for other artists to study and copy.
At some point late in the sixteenth century, this small sketch was cut from a larger single sheet of paper on which Leonardo had made multiple studies of heads. What remains here, though, carries hallmarks of Leonardo’s artistic technique. He used hatching—closely set parallel lines—to shade the figure. In this case, the strokes are drawn from the top left to lower right, a telltale sign of Leonardo’s renowned left-handedness (right-handed artists typically hatch from upper right to lower left, since the elbow is used as a pivot). The figure’s bushy hair reflects a technique that Leonardo pioneered and called sfumato, which relates to a softness of contour and blurring of boundaries, crucial to Leonardo’s style across drawings and paintings. He remarked that light and shade should blend “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke.”