Urgent Museum Notice

Portrait of a Noblewoman

Close up of Portrait of a Noblewoman

A woman stands in a richly brocaded red dress, her right hand reaching down to pet a small, white dog. Adorned in jewelry, she wears flowers in her hair, parted in the center. The pelt of a small mammal, its head encased in a jeweled holder, hangs from her heavily decorated belt.

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

Portrait of a Noblewoman
Lavinia Fontana

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 books and family diaries from this period show that the clothes and gems depicted here correspond precisely to the items typical of a high-born bride’s trousseau. Additionally, 16th-century Bolognese brides wore red dresses, and the dog represents marital fidelity.

Suspended from the woman’s belt is a curious item mentioned in numerous family records of that time. It is the pelt of a marten—a slender, minklike creature—whose head and paws are elaborately decorated with jewels. This adornment serves as an additional symbol of the bride’s wealth.

Artwork Details

  • Artist

    Lavinia Fontana
  • Title

    Portrait of a Noblewoman
  • Date

    ca. 1580
  • Medium

    Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions

    45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.
  • Donor Credit

    Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
  • Photo Credit

    Lee Stalsworth
  • On Display

    Yes