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The First Professional Female Artist: Lavinia Fontana

There weren’t very many women able to become successful artists in Renaissance Europe. But Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was definitely one of those rare few. A producer of over 135 sophisticated oil paintings, she was one of the first female portraitists to seek commissions. Her prolific body of work encompasses numerous categories of art, including single and group portraits, church altar art, and narrative and historic scenes. She was the first Bolognese female to earn renown throughout Italy.

"Self Portrait at Her Desk" (c. 1579) by Lavinia Fontana

Fontana studied with her father, Prospero Fontana (c. 1512–97), a minor painter of the school of Bologna, who taught his daughter to paint in the Mannerist style. Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana was commissioned to make not only portraits, the typical subject matter for women painters, but also religious and mythological themes, which sometimes included female nudes.

"Portrait of a Noblewoman" (c.1580) by Lavinia Fontana

At age 27 she received a commission from Dominican scholar and church historian Pietro Ciaconio for the first of her two self-portraits, "Self-Portrait Seated at Her Desk", which features her in a composed, contemplative posture. Painted the following year, "Portrait of a Noblewoman" depicts a standing female figure holding a decoratively jeweled marten skin and absently petting a lap dog. Characteristic of Fontana's images is the incorporation of textured and embroidered fabrics and rich gold jewelry set with pearls and rubies.

"Venus an Cupid" (c.1592) by Lavinia Fontana

Fontana also painted religious works, including several altarpieces for Italian and Spanish churches. That she received commissions to paint altarpieces is unusual for a female artist of this time. That she also made history paintings is even more unusual. But neither is as noteworthy as the fact that she sometimes included nude figures, which were generally off-limits to female artists for many centuries. Her nudes often appear as classical figures like Venus and Minerva.

"Minerva Dressing" (c.1613) by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana studied not only painting. She also received an academic education. It is known that the artist played spinet (a smaller type of clavichord) and could read Latin. Before Fontana got married, she painted "Self-Portrait with the Spinet Accompanied by a Handmaiden", in which she presented herself both as an elegant lady and as a professional painter. The first guise is emphasized by Lavinia’s lavish clothing, a musical instrument and a servant with the sheet in her hands,and the second one — by an easel by the window.

"Self-Portrait with the Spinet Accompanied by a Handmaiden" (c.1577) by Lavinia Fontana

Fontana’s earliest work, though lost, is said to be a piece titled, Child of the Monkey, from around 1575, but another work, Holy family, also takes that claim. Shortly after these early works she wed Gian Paolo Zappi, who was studying under her father, and he eventually assisted her in future works. She enjoyed much success and was eventually invited to Rome by Pope Clement VIII (1536 – 1605), where she also painted portraits of Camillo Borghese (1550 – 1621), when he was Pope Paul V starting in 1605. Fontana and her family lived in Rome up until her death in 1614.

Alongside her other works, Fontana painted several self portraits showing herself as the successful artist and well-educated woman that she was. Seems like she earned it.



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