Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography, Leonardo da Vinci, takes readers on a journey into the life of one of the most creative minds in history. Civilization has produced only a few such geniuses. As the original “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo stands out not just for specific accomplishments (e.g. the Mona Lisa) but also for the breadth of his interests. The influence of such persons is magnified when their work becomes a model for those who follow. This made me think about Ernest Thompson Seton, Leonardo da Vinci and the intersection of art and science.
While this is no direct artistic influence of Leonardo upon Seton, similarities exist in their approach to creativity beginning with their high mutual regard for combining art and science. For instance, Seton’s wildlife illustrations range from the highly technical (Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals) to the downright literary (Lives of Game Animals). They have in common a goal of achieving insight into the personality, capabilities, and/or ecology of the subject. In this case, scientific research (observation of the animal and its habits) leads to artistic expression.
Leonardo (like Seton) was subject to going off on tangents, one thought or subject leading to another, suggesting a lack of seriousness. But upon reflection, Isaacson wrote:
At first I thought that his susceptibility to fantasia was a failing, revealing a lack of discipline and diligence…[because] vision without execution is hallucination. But I came to believe that his ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy…was a key to creativity. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination which made him history’s consummate innovator.
Leonardo and Seton share a few specific interests. Both proved that the study of anatomy was the foundation of successful representational art. The skin or clothing of the human or animal model is merely a draping over muscles and bones. The lips of Mona Lisa are perfect because of Leonardo’s obsession with dissection of the human body. Seton’s masterwork, “Sleeping Wolf,” achieves its extraordinary sense of life from a thorough knowledge of canine physiology.
In his book, Isaacson chronicles Leonardo’s attributes. Have selected a few that I believe apply to Seton as well.
“…he [Leonardo da Vinci] became the archetype of the Renaissance Man, an inspiration to all who believe in a unity filled with marvelous patterns.” (page 1)
Leonardo is passionately curious, stunningly imaginative, following a creative impulse through many different disciplines. (page 3)
Leonardo added to his to-do list a reminder to “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” (page 5) Simply remarkable. Compare to Seton counting all the feathers on a Brewer’s grackle.
From Seton’s autobiography:
Back of neck 285
Front of neck 300
All below 1000
Each thigh 100 200
Each wing 280 560
Flight feathers 44
Leonardo’s “ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity.” (page 9)
Leonardo recognized that the key to figurative depiction was a thorough understanding of anatomy, “sinews, bones and muscles and tendons.” (page 84) Both artists infused their figures with remarkable life-likeness by starting from the inside (bones, muscles, etc.) and working outward (skin, fur, clothing). So we see the outermost layer, but it is entirely informed by what lies beneath.
“In his notebooks he decried ‘men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind.” (page 130) Seton made the same point in Gospel of the Red Man.
Leonardo made incredibly accurate (and beautiful) anatomical drawings of the human form as well as that of the horse, combining the best artistic practices with the best science of his time. (page 162) Seton’s contribution in this field was his early book, Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals.
He believed experiential learning was often more informative than an academic approach. (page 170) Why limit yourself to reading what others did, when you can instead do it yourself? This is a primary tenet of Lifecraft. Both Leonardo and Seton were largely self-taught, not the products of academic institutions.
Leonardo combined “omnivorous curiosity, which bordered on the fanatical” (page 178) with an emphasis on observation. This too is an important part of the Seton’s Lifecraft philosophy.
Just as Von Humboldt provided a model for the 19th century naturalists who followed him (including Seton), Leonardo anticipated Von Humboldt by providing a model of pursuing broad inquiry into as many specifics as possible in the attempt to understand the larger wholeness of the world. Seton’s Lifecraft carried that notion into the 20th century.
“He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Leonardo 1452-1519 (age 67)
“Because I have known the torment of thirst I would dig a well where others may drink.” Seton from preface to Two Little Savages, 1903 (age 86)