Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady with a dog, 1690s 

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Portrait of a Lady with a dog, 1690s, Lavinia Fontana
Oil on canvas
16th Century
35¼ x 24 3/8 inches, , 89.5 x 61.9 cm
Alfredo Spencer (according to an inscription on the stretcher); Hemmerlé collection, Monthois, from at least the early 20th century; Thence by descent in a French private collection.
Lavinia Fontana is considered to be the first woman to become a successful professional artist in Europe. Her oeuvre of over seventy works, to which the present picture is a new and hitherto unpublished addition, is the largest of any female artist before the eighteenth century. Born in Bologna to an artist father, Prospero Fontana, Lavinia Fontana not only enjoyed the benefits of her father’s training, but also took advantage of the emerging belief in renaissance Italy that women could play a leading role in the arts, whether literary, musical or visual. Her contemporaries included, in Italy, the aristocratic Sofonisba Anguissola, and Marietti Robusti, the daughter of Tintoretto.

Fontana’s earliest works are small religious scenes, similar to those of her father. A well known example is the 1581 ‘Noli me Tangere’ in the Uffizi, Florence, a work that shows many of the traits we see in her later paintings. The picture is characteristically Mannerist in its composition, an influence that Fontana carried well into the seventeenth century, but shows that even in her earliest works she had a great talent for detail, as seen in the background and the intricately rendered foliage. The picture also appears to be a consciously feminine portrayal of the scene, for unlike other depictions of the subject, it is the figure of Mary Magdalene that dominates the composition, while Christ, his face half in shadow under a broad brimmed hat, seems deliberately pushed to the right of the canvas.

By the early 1580s Fontana was well established as a portraitist in her native Bologna. Her eye for detail allowed her to render with an unseen degree of realism the expensive fabrics and rich jewels of her sitters, a vital asset for portraying the intensely fashion conscious Bolognese. The present portrait, painted in the 1590s, is dominated by the elaborately depicted ruff, along with details such as the jewelled flowers in the sitter’s hair. Recent cleaning has revealed the full extent of the silver and gold thread in the costume, while the carefully graded green background, previously obscured by layers of dirt and discoloured varnish, gives the sitter a sense of movement, and adds depth to the whole composition.

The present picture was painted when Fontana was at the height of her success in Bologna. The women of Bologna’s ruling elite, a collection of forty interwoven families known as the “Quaranta”, became so fond of Fontana that they vied amongst each other for her commissions. Fontana’s early biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia wrote that “…all the Ladies of the City would compete in wishing to have her close to them, treating her and embracing her with extraordinary demonstrations of love and respect, considering themselves fortunate to have seen her on the street… the greatest thing that they desired would be to have her paint their portraits…” By the end of the decade Fontana had transcended even the competition of leading male artists to become the region’s most sought after and highly paid painter. Federico Zuccaro described her as “…the rare and excellent Lavinia Fontana – pittore singolare”. She was the closest thing Bologna had to a celebrity, and the city felt her loss when, in 1603, she moved to Rome, partly at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII.

The sitter in the present portrait, one of Fontana’s most attractive works, is unknown. What appears to be a small coat of arms on one of the chain links (perhaps a red croce di Sant’ Andrea) may link the sitter to a specific family, pending further research. It is most likely, however, that the picture shows a prospective bride, and would probably have been commissioned as part of the wedding negotiations between two aristocratic families. The young sitter’s dress, with it’s cornucopia-like details, alludes to the bearing of fruit, while the string of pearls around her neck symbolises youthful purity, as do the flowers in her hair. The small dog, a common inclusion in Fontana’s portraits is no doubt included as a symbol of fidelity, but it appears lifelike enough to suggest that it was one of the fashionable pet dogs – a cane Bolognese – that were highly prized by Italian nobility, particularly in Bologna.

Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.