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Leonard, Michael (b. 1933)  
page: 1  2  

Leonard's paintings exhibit a luminous play of light and dark that recalls the tenebrism of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting. The artist enjoys rhyming patterns of light and shadow cast by his figures' musculature with the folds of towel and fabric that may drape or partly cover the nude.

In style and subject, Leonard's greatest debt is to Edgar Degas's paintings and pastels of bathers--prostitutes sponge bathing in the privacy of their Parisian bedrooms and boudoirs. Degas's cropped and angled compositions suggest the presence of an unnoticed voyeur, relishing what he has caught in his gaze. Leonard, too, visually invites us to join him in private encounters with male beauty, restating Degas' theme in contemporary gender terms.

In scenes where Leonard gives his male nude an attribute of skull or mirror, as in the painting Vanitas of 1991, he places his figure in a time-honored tradition. The nude or clothed woman--goddess, saint, or mere mortal--posed before a mirror or holding a skull was a trope for moralizing statements on life's pleasures and brevity. Leonard draws his nudes into this convention, allowing the viewer to ponder in sensual male terms those universals formerly expressed by the female nude.

The supine and drowsily sleeping nude in Vanitas places one arm, supported by the other, over his face to half conceal it. A skull that is nestled in the crook of the model's arm is also half-covered by an article of clothing thrown askew on the bed. Leonard further develops a parallel theme of sacrifice made by the bearded young man's reclining figure, seen in steep perspective from knee to head and recalling Andrea Mantegna's Dead Christ, a famous early Renaissance painting dating to the late fifteenth century.

Very few of Leonard's paintings address homosexual identity directly, but those like Vanitas are, in part, the artist's empathetic response to the AIDS crisis. Couched in traditional symbolism and in terms of the Western nude, Vanitas hauntingly alludes to spent sexual desire and the inevitability of death.

If Leonard's nudes betray a sharp awareness of art historical tradition even as he extends and modifies those traditions, so too do his portraits. In a series of portrait drawings entitled "Drawn to the Past," he deliberately portrays contemporary likenesses in the manner of earlier artists, attempting thereby to "throw a new and intriguing light on the character of a face and incidentally provide my sitters with some surprising ancestors."

Leonard has said of his work that "My pictures marry observed reality with abstract values and are often enriched with personal subtexts or echoes of the work of great artists I admire. They are above all celebrations, and I hope to continue making them for as long as I am able. For me there is no occupation more fulfilling."

The artist resides in London.

Richard H. Axsom

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Leonard, Michael. Changing II: Drawings by Michael Leonard. Edward Lucie-Smith, intro. London: Heretic Books(GMP), 1992.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Adam: The Male Figure in Art. New York: Rizzoli, 1998.

_____. The Body: Images of the Nude. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

_____. The Male Nude: A Modern View. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

_____. Michael Leonard: Paintings. Lincoln Kirstein, foreword. London: GMP, 1985.

_____. Race, Sex, and Gender in Contemporary Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

"New Exhibit at Jonathan Edwards College Features Portraits, Drawings and Paintingsby British Artist." Yale Bulletin & Calendar 35.14 (January 12, 2007):


    Citation Information
    Author: Axsom, Richard H.  
    Entry Title: Leonard, Michael  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2007  
    Date Last Updated July 15, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  


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