Lavinia Fontana, Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant, 1577, Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome
She made great strides in the field of portraiture, which garnered her fame within and beyond Italy. In fact, Fontana is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent.
At age 25, Fontana married a fellow painter from a noble family, who acted as his wife’s assistant and managed their growing household (the couple had 11 children, only three of whom outlived their mother). For 20 years beginning in the 1580s, Fontana was the portraitist of choice among Bolognese noblewomen. She also painted likenesses of important individuals connected with the University of Bologna.
Fontana’s fame spread to Rome, where she moved in 1604. There she became a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V and was the recipient of numerous honors, including a bronze portrait medallion cast in 1611 by sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni.
Lavinia Fontana depicted the Bolognese noblewoman Costanza Alidosi seated in a sparsely, yet luxuriously, furnished interior. In the upper left, a courtyard and two open doorways are visible, giving the painting depth and perspective.
Portrait of a Noblewoman illustrates Lavinia Fontana’s ability to render sumptuous clothing and jewels in astonishing detail. The contrast between the woman and the painting’s plain, dark background is especially strong, ensuring that viewers will focus on the figure.
Recent scholarship has established that this painting of an unidentified, young Bolognese noblewoman is almost certainly her marriage portrait. Studies of account...
Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580; Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Funding for the frame generously provided by the Texas State Committee; Photo by Lee Stalsworth