Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk

The “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” is believed to have been drawn by the legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci around 1510 or when he was about 60 years old. The piece is a Renaissance artwork. Although this drawing has been widely accepted as a self-portrait by the ultimate Renaissance Man, several historians and scholars disagree that it was da Vinci in the drawing. It is currently in Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy. The drawing was made with red chalk on paper and wasn’t deemed as a Leonardo da Vinci artwork until the 19th century.

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk Context and Story

History and Controversy

Originally, the “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” was acquired in 1839 by King Carlo Alberto of Savoy.

If you have seen this iconic and yet controversial artwork,  you’d instantly think it was a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci – a self-portrait he made during the Renaissance period. This assumption was first made during the 19th century when the drawing was compared to several other paintings of da Vinci.

It was first compared with Raphael’s “The School of Athens” where da Vinci was among the figures painted. The similarity between Raphael’s image of his fellow artist and the red chalk drawing was astonishing. They also compared its likeness to the portrait of da Vinci in Vasari’s book “The Lives of Artists.”

German historian and professor Frank Zöllner said that the red chalk painting helped them determine da Vinci’s appearance as it was long believed as the only authentic self-portrait of the most famous painter.

However, many da Vinci experts and scholars disagree with the thought. Among them were Professor Martin Kemp, Robert Payne, and Professor Pietro Marani.

Their counter was made in the 20th century. According to them, the sitter was a lot older than da Vinci would have looked like at 60. Since the painter died when he was 67, they assumed he would have drawn the portrait when he was aged 58 to 60.

Instead, they believe the man is the painter’s father, Piero da Vinci or perhaps his uncle, Francesco. They based it on the fact that both had a long life and lived until they were 80.


The portrait was simple enough. It was a drawing of an old man’s face, slightly looking at the side but his face in full view of the audience. He looked grim, even a little grumpy. It may have been because the portrait indicates a loss of the two front teeth.

He has a distinguishable long and wavy hair as well as long beard, which in fact uncommon for Renaissance drawings and portraits. His nose is aquiline, another prominent facial feature. The sitter also has deep lines around his eyes and on his brows.

His eyebrows are long, almost covering his solemn eyes.

The drawing had the same unique and fine lines that were da Vinci’s habit. It was also drawn with the left hand and had the same realism that every other da Vinci artwork possessed. It was no question the Master created the image. It was only whether it was him or not on the drawing.

Portraits from Other Painters

Another reason why many experts believe it wasn’t da Vinci was that there are several other portraits of the artist created by other painters. These art pieces were created around the early 16th century and as late as the 19th century.

Perhaps the oldest surviving portrait is yet another red chalk drawing on paper that was done by his pupil Francesco Melzi. The portrait was done at Windsor and showed a younger version of da Vinci – at least younger than the man in the alleged self-portrait.

The Melzi drawing shows his master face in a side view. Although the wavy hair and beard were somewhat similar, Melzi’s portrait showed less deepening in the brows and the eye area. The bushy eyebrows are missing as well.

In general, Melzi’s red chalk drawing was less of a symbol of sagacity.


The sad part, however, is that the self-portrait is too fragile that it can’t even be displayed for art lovers. It is contained and kept safely in Turin in a special container that registers the heat, light, humidity, etc. that could affect the drawing. If any change is detected, a person in charge would immediately be alerted.

Experts continuously try to save it from vanishing as the red chalk is gradually fading into the yellowing paper. This is due to the heat, moisture, light, acidic and metallic impurities as well as pollutants.

They believe that it was stored poorly in its previous home which led to its degradation. Experts are still trying to figure out how damaged the drawing is so they can come up with a way of preserving it.

In 2014, researchers were able to develop a nondestructive way determining its condition by describing and then quantifying the level chromophores that is affecting the paper. With this, they’d be able to determine the rate of which the drawing was deteriorating.

Since it was retrieved by Biblioteca Reale, “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” has only been displayed three times for the public over the century. The last was in 2011 during the 150th Italian Unification anniversary. They haven’t shown it ever since in the fear that intervention could negatively affect the fragile drawing.

Hopefully, it could be repaired one day, and we’ll be able to see it with our own eyes and decide whether it’s da Vinci or not.

Related Paintings/Artists

Leonardo da Vinci remains to be one of the most talked about and popular artists of all time. He is considered as one of the Old Masters of Europe and continues to inspire artists of today. Some of his artworks include:

  • Head of a Woman (1508)
  • Portrait of Isabella d’Este (1499-1500)
  • Profile of an Ancient Captain (1477)
  • Head of a Man (1503)
  • Heads of an Old Man and a Youth (1495)

Also worth mentioning are the following artworks and their creators:

  • The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-1511)
  • Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Second Edition by Giorgio Vasari (1568)
  • Portrait of Leonardo by Francesco Melzi (after 1510)

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk Resources

Scaramella, A.D. (2012, December 21). Artwork Analysis Self Portrait in Red Chalk by Leonardo da Vinci. Fine Arts 360. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20141129023331/http://www.finearts360.com/index.php/artwork-analysis-self-portrait-in-red-chalk-by-leonardo-da-vinci-308/

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrait_of_a_Man_in_Red_Chalk

Cascone, Sarah. (2014, June 4) Scientists Race to Save Crumbling Da Vinci Self-Portrait. Artnet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/scientists-race-to-save-crumbling-da-vinci-self-portrait-33256

Leonardo da Vinci Self Portrait. LeonardoDaVinci.net. Retrieved from https://www.leonardodavinci.net/self-portrait.jsp

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