Leonardo’s so-called cartoon … why did he keep it beside him ? Why was it unfinished ? These questions continue to annoy me.
First guess … he might have abandoned it to finish other paintings.
Second guess … he wasn’t sure HOW to finish it … he might have been undecided about the background … he was certainly undecided about the foreground. He might have been “paralyzed” by a difficult choice.
Third guess … he hesitated to include imagery that might have been unacceptable to the church if it conflicted with their dogmatic adherence to the standard biblical narrative. He might have wanted to depart from the Church’s conventional iconography in some small way. In those days patrons and purchasers were inclined to specify and even dictate the details to be shown by the artist. Contracts were often entered by artist and patron.
The notes in Wikipedia are very helpful, but not fruitfully speculative.
The Cartoon’s vaguely sketched foreground intrigues me. At first I never noticed it. I think Leonardo hesitated because he had two or three choices.
First Choice … It is possible a client wanted the Queen of Heaven to be royally shod as befitting her status. In both versions of THE VIRGIN OF THE ROCKS Leonardo didn’t show her feet.
Second Choice … if her feet were to rest on solid ground, then there would be the question of appropriate flowers and plants, or floor boards or flagstones, etc.
Third Choice … I like to think that the unshod foot and the vaguely drawn stones or pebbles in the foreground of The Cartoon were intended to be partly submerged in a crystal-clear stream … some kind of metaphor for the “River of Life”.
For instance, water might offer a hint that one must dip one’s toe in the stream of life in order to reach one’s supposed destiny. It might be that a stream would represent a moment of choice when one must either cross or turn aside. Or ... it might only be that the Lady was enjoying the sensual coolness of the water after a long walk. I’m not sure a simple human pleasure would have been on any client’s agenda back in those difficult times.
There is no reasonable justification for my suggestion, but this is the helpful advice I would have given Leonardo if he was well-and-truly, nail-bitingly stuck, and if he’d asked me nicely, man-to-man.