Renaissance Rebel: Lavinia Fontana

One of the oldest works in NMWA’s collection, Portrait of a Noblewoman (ca. 1580), was painted by late Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614, Bologna, Italy). NMWA’s collection holds three of Fontana’s paintings. Considered the first professional woman artist, Fontana worked within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent. She earned a living through her art, broke barriers, and earned a list of superlatives and appellations.

Fontana trained in her father’s studio. Her family, though not noble, moved among a well-educated circle which valued the education of women. Bologna’s university accepted women, and Fontana earned the degree of dottoressa.

In 1577 Fontana married Gian Paolo Zappi—a marriage which proved unique. Fontana was married without a dowry on the assumption that she would earn her income through painting. Her marriage contract required that she and her husband remain in her father’s household, and that Fontana would continue to contribute to the family’s workshop. Though a painter himself, Zappi recognized his wife’s talent and acted as her agent and assistant, prioritizing her career as an artist.

Fontana could not join the Carracci School because the institution emphasized the drawing of nudes—and women were not allowed access to nude models. Fontana did not let that discourage her. She proceeded to paint nude figures anyway, like in the case of Minerva Dressing (1613). Some scholars claim that Fontana was the first woman to paint female nudes, though this is difficult to prove. Later in life she was elected to the Roman Academy, increasing the value of her paintings and allowing her to collect art and antiques herself.

Best known for her portraits, Fontana also painted historical and religious subjects. Portraiture was deemed an appropriate subject for a woman, but history and religious painting were not. Undeterred, Fontana made more than a dozen altarpieces. More than 100 of her paintings survive, more than any other woman artist from her time. The quality and breadth of her oeuvre becomes all the more impressive when one considers that she gave birth to eleven children, however, only three survived her. Pregnant for nearly a decade of her life, Fontana worked through the physical and emotional strain of motherhood.

A savvy businesswoman, Fontana maintained friendships with many of her sitters. Often naming them as godparents of her numerous children, Fontana guaranteed herself upper-class patronage. By 1604 Fontana and her family relocated to Rome to paint for the papal office. Her youngest son’s godfather was Cardinal Camillo Borghese, who later became Pope Paul V.   

Reportedly charming, Fontana was a sought after portraitist among nobility—particularly noblewomen. Biographer Malvasia stated, “All the ladies of the city would compete in wishing to have her close.” Sitters for Fontana knew to expect a flattering portrayal that highlighted both their beauty and their intelligence, with particular attention to jewelry and fabric.

Visit the museum to see paintings by this Renaissance rebel!

Chloe Bazlen is the summer 2017 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Challenge Accepted: Can You Name Five Women Artists?

Ask someone to name five artists and responses will likely include names such as Warhol, Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, da Vinci—all male artists. Ask someone to name five women artists, and the question poses more of a challenge.

Back by popular demand this March, the National Museum of Women in the Arts continues to ask, “Can you name five women artists?” This simple question calls attention to the inequity women artists face, inspires conversation, and brings awareness to a larger audience. Last year, the campaign struck a chord, and tens of thousands of posts were shared on social media. This year, more than 200 institutions from 50 states, 22 countries, and seven continents have already signed on to participate.

Join us throughout the month to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5WomenArtists on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Challenge your family and friends.
  2. Share posts about your favorite women artists.
  3. Share a work by a woman artist at a museum or gallery near you.
  4. Explore NMWA’s artist profiles to discover artists you may not know.
  5. Get the facts about art world inequality and track campaign updates all month long.

To kick off the month, learn more about five influential women artists from the museum’s collection who defied expectations:

Left to right: Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman (ca. 1580) and Maria Martinez and Julian Martinez, Jar (ca. 1939); NMWA; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left to right: Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580 and Maria Martinez and Julian Martinez, Jar, ca. 1939; NMWA; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) is regarded as the first professional woman artist. For 20 years beginning in the 1580s, Fontana was the portraitist of choice among Bolognese noblewomen. Not only was Fontana the breadwinner of her family, she also gave birth to 11 children.

For more than eight decades, Maria Martinez (1887–1980) revived and continued the centuries-old black-on-black pottery traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Through her creative vision and skill, Martinez influenced generations of artists.

Left to right: Clementine Hunter, Untitled, 1981; NMWA, Gift of Evelyn M. Shambaugh; Lola Álvarez Bravo, De generación en generación, ca. 1950; NMWA, Gift of the Artist; © 1995 University of Arizona Foundation, Center for Creative Photography

Entirely self-taught and immensely prolific, Clementine Hunter (ca. 1887–1988) earned critical acclaim for vibrant paintings depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana. Hunter did not start painting until the 1940s, when she was already a grandmother.

Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907–1993) was one of Mexico’s first professional women photographers, documenting daily life and portraying prominent world leaders. Like her friend Frida Kahlo, Álvarez Bravo celebrated the traditional costumes and customs of her country’s varied regions. She cannily blended nationalist content with the expression of universal human emotions.

Lee Krasner, The Springs, 1964; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © 2012 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lee Krasner (1908–1984) was one of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters. Through six decades devoted to art, she explored innovative approaches to painting and collage. Often overshadowed by her husband, Krasner declared, “I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock . . . but I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”

Want to help advocate for women in the arts? Starting March 1, take the challenge and post about #5WomenArtists on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and tag us @WomenInTheArts.

Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Pre-K Invasion: Developing New Tours for Young Audiences

This April, some of NMWA’s oldest paintings entertained the museum’s youngest audience. In a series of pilot tours for preschoolers, NMWA’s Education staff led 140 energetic Pre-K and kindergarten students through the galleries to examine portraits, colors, and shapes. Seated on rainbow-colored carpet squares, tiny visitors listened to stories, explored paintings, and experimented with diverse materials in their own art projects.

IMG_0601_edited

Pre-K visitors explore poses and posture in front of Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

As the intern charged with crafting this new tour experience, I quickly realized that flexibility was key. Months of planning and research culminated in three thought-out lesson plans. However, unexpected obstacles still arose. School buses ran late, large events occupied the museum’s Great Hall, and an educator was accidentally scheduled to give two tours at once. I designed the tours to last 45 minutes, allow for ten students per educator, and conclude with an art-making activity in the Great Hall. In the end, the tours lasted an hour and art-making occasionally shifted locations.

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Activities morphed based on the students’ interest, participation, and cooperation. Some of the preschoolers enjoyed using viewfinders to act like “color detectives” while other groups found the tool distracting. By the last program, we had figured out the most efficient ways to use materials in the galleries.

The art-making, movement activities, and stories captivated our young audience. The preschoolers found the dog in Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman and the unicorn in Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly in Her Mind easy to talk about—as well as the eye-catching outfits of each painting’s subject. They enjoyed mimicking shapes and lines with their bodies in front of Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain and using “magic paintbrushes” to imagine the expressive brush strokes in Joan Mitchell’s Orange. Students were eager to mix oil pastels and rip colored tape in their hands-on art activities. While creating self-portraits, they used hand mirrors to admire their faces. They were proud to take their artwork home as a reminder of their experience.

Overall, the program was a huge success! Logistical hurdles aside, we received positive feedback from teachers and chaperones who thought the tours were engaging and age-appropriate. Hearing kids say, “Wow! This place is cool!” or mention how much fun they had made the entire experience worth every ounce of effort it took to make it happen. I am excited for the future of these tours and cannot wait to hear how they play out during the next school year.

—Valerie Bundy was the winter/spring 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is a former Pre-K teacher who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in museum education at the George Washington University.