Painting Superior to Sculpture

David Kute

Honors 107



In the Philosophy of the Art of Painting, Leonardo Da Vinci argues that painting is the ultimate art. This is due to the fact that the “eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.”(LV, pg.327) The visual sense can take in more of nature than any other sense, Da Vinci contends. In this work, an argument is also offered for why painting is a higher art than sculpture. Da Vinci spent time as both a sculptor and a painter, and he claims that this absolves him from any preferential bias for one of these methods. So as a neutral observer, he concludes that “painting is not defective in any particular,” while sculpture has many flaws (LV, pg. 329). It is my contention that Leonardo Da Vinci believes painting is superior to sculpture because it is less limited and is able to display aspects of nature more completely.

Light, shade, and colors are not natural to sculpture, while a painter is free to use them endlessly. Da Vinci argues that while “in the first place, sculpture requires a certain light, that is from above, a picture carries everywhere with it its own light and shade.”(LV, pg. 329) Sculpture requires sunlight, and it relies on a combination of light and shade to be seen. But painting follows the natural distribution of light and shade, so the painter will place light and shade where it naturally appears according to what is being painted. A painting is thus independent of sunlight, and carries its own light and shade. Sculpture also cannot use a diversity of colors (LV, pg. 329), which a painter always has at his disposal. A sculpture of bronze or marble is in one color. But a painting is able to use the spectrum of colors, and present more visual diversity (LV, pg. 330). Therefore, light, shade and colors play a larger role in painting than they ever could in sculpture.

Distance and perspective can also be displayed more freely and accurately in painting. Da Vinci explains: “The sculptor when he uses perspective cannot make it in any way appear true….”(LV, pg. 329) Sculptors cannot draw perspective into a sculpture. Although a sculpture can appear lifelike, there is no way for the sculptor to work with perspective and distance. This is because the spectator’s view of the sculpture dictates the perspective, whereas in a painting the perspective is controlled by the painter. He explains further: “Their works have no aerial perspective whatever, they cannot represent transparent bodies, they cannot represent luminous bodies, nor reflected lights, nor lustrous bodies….”(LV, pg. 329) In addition to not being able to use distance or perspective, certain immaterial things like light, fog, and overhead views are impossible with sculpture. The painter has a freedom of movement, view, and angle that is simply not possible in sculpture.

Painting is also as lasting as sculpture. Durability and permanence are a quality that sculpture has, its only real advantage over painting. But Da Vinci believes that a certain method of painting where copper is used is just as permanent as any sculpture. He refers to this when he says “if sculpture in bronze is durable, this work in copper and enamel is absolutely imperishable.”(LV, pg. 330) So, although sculpture is thought to be more enduring than painting, Da Vinci is convinced that painting on copper will allow a painting as much immortality as any bronze statue.

Painting is thus unlimited in its ability to represent the natural world using color, perspective, distance, light and shade. The possibilities allowed to the medium are manifold, and compared to the other arts, there is the least potential for limitations. Because it can copy nature so well, painting is “the more beautiful and the more imaginative and the more copious.”(LV, pg.30) There is a connection between nature and painting, as the painter is one “whose art expresses the accidental aspects of nature.” (LV, pg. 329) Only painting can display nature in its totality, so that even its “accidental aspects” are expressed. Painting is also not bound by limitations, as Da Vinci explains in this passage: “In fact painting is adorned with infinite possibilities which sculpture cannot command.” (LV, pg. 330) Therefore, as I have argued, Da Vinci felt that painting was superior to sculpture due to its lack of limitations and its ability to represent the natural world in the most accessible way, using light, shade, colors, perspective, and distance.

Therefore, Da Vinci contends painting is the highest art and far superior to sculpture because of its limitless possibilities and ability to depict nature the most accurately. This is due to the nature of the medium and its ability to use light, shade, colors, perspective, and distance, all of which allow the painter to adapt his work to any circumstance or conceived project, be it imagined or real, material or immaterial.