Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552-1614), Portrait of a Lady, 1585. Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
RICHMOND, VA.- The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced their recent acquisition of Portrait of a Lady (1585) by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), a celebrated woman artist from Bologna.
“Lavinia Fontana was a pioneer during her lifetime. The discovery and acquisition of this piece elevates VMFA’s collection of late Renaissance art,” says Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s CEO and Director. “Her work demonstrates the significant yet often unrecognized artistic contributions women have made throughout history.”
Fontana was one of the first women artists in Italy to work alongside her male colleagues. Owing to her talent and business acumen, she later became a trailblazer in her role as head of a successful studio. As early as the 1580s, Fontana’s portraiture was highly favored among Bolognese noble families. In the early 1600s, she moved to Rome where she became a painter at the papal court.
The young woman in the portrait is dressed in an extravagant amount of gold, jewels, precious stones and pearls. During this era, pearls symbolized the purity of both body and soul. To further emphasize this aspect of her sitter’s moral character, Fontana depicts her toying gracefully with a rosary that is attached to her belt, a gesture that reminds the viewer of her pious dedication to daily prayer. Portraits of this kind were often part of the traditions surrounding aristocratic marital engagements. Fontana’s indulgence in representing the luxurious ornamentation, combined with her use of compositional elements intended to convey the Catholic piety and chastity of the sitter, ensure that the future bride is portrayed as a paragon of both wealth and virtue.
Although no evidence remains that might attest to the sitter’s identity, recent research has proposed that it could be an early portrait of Isabella Gonzaga (1565–1637). A member of a prestigious princely family of Mantua, Isabella inherited the minor principality of Sabbionetta from her father, and she was an influential presence at the courts of the duke of Milan and the king of Naples.
“Here is a woman’s regard for another woman during an era when the very contours of womanhood were principally being delineated by men. A noble woman in this society had to struggle to affirm her place, her dignity and her authority,” says Dr. Sylvain Cordier, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art. “This representation of a confident and charismatic young noble woman will play a vital role in the development of the spectacular Grand Portrait Gallery that we are preparing for 2025. This gallery will assist our visitors to interrogate the constantly changing conventions governing gendered representation in European art over the course of several centuries.”