Home Arts How Lavinia Fontana went from ‘prospect’ to first professional artist

How Lavinia Fontana went from ‘prospect’ to first professional artist

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Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is widely considered the first woman in Western art history to be a professional artist. Although others before her had been noted painters in a convent or court context, Fontana ran her own thriving studio in her native Bologna and later in Rome. The National Gallery of Ireland, home to Fontana’s largest and most ambitious known painting, The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1599), devotes a large monographic exhibition to the artist.

With around fifty paintings and works on paper, Lavinia Fontana: pioneer, rule breaker will explore the “many firsts” of her career, explains her curator Aoife Brady, and focus on her specialty – portraiture – for which she has become the artist of choice among Bolognese nobles. But it will also discuss his unprecedented work on large-scale public altarpieces and his depiction of female nudes at a time when women were not allowed to study human anatomy.

Fontana’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1599) National Gallery of Ireland

Fontana’s training as a painter appears to have been a matter of financial necessity. Her father Prospero, himself an esteemed portrait painter, was ill and viewed his youngest daughter as “a prospect to support the family,” Brady says. Fontana’s arranged marriage to Gian Paolo Zappi was suitably unconventional, allowing her to pursue an artistic career. Their marriage contract from 1577, which will appear in the first room of the exhibition, stipulated that she had no dowry and that they would both earn their living in her father’s house.

Although biographers at the time are fuzzy on details, Fontana worked prolifically and strategically over the next few decades while bearing 11 children. “She knew how to sell herself,” Brady says. “While her father and husband gave her the circumstances in which to operate, it seems she was responsible for much of the negotiation and diplomacy that comes with being a successful Renaissance artist. .”

Her rise coincided with a period when women in Bologna had more opportunities to participate in public life, including as patrons of charities and the arts. These “elite cliques” became Fontana’s core clientele. Her finely detailed Mannerist portraits, with their lavish rendering of clothing and jewelry, were considered “a staple for the homes of such women”, Brady says. Among the examples in the exhibition is the monumental Gozzadini family group portrait from 1584, the first documented commission by a patron from a female artist.

It’s extraordinary everything that came out of the woodwork

Aoife Brady, curator

Fontana’s style may appear “very academic” to contemporary eyes in comparison to the gritty naturalism pioneered by his near-contemporary Caravaggio, notes Brady. The Dublin exhibition will showcase his art alongside rare Renaissance textiles and fashion accessories with the aim of “bringing down those walls”, says Brady, and immersing gallery visitors in “the world of Bologna. from the end of the sixteenth century.

It is only in recent decades that Fontana’s technique, and that of other neglected female artists throughout history, has begun to be studied in depth, resulting in new discoveries of her work. “It’s amazing what’s come out of the carpentry,” says Brady. The counting of allotted in complete safety The number of images now stands at around 130, however, she adds, “I may be able to give you a different number after the exhibition is over”.

Brady was involved in the recent allocation of three coins from US collections. The Getty lends its newly acquired oil-on-copper painting The wedding at Cana and the preparatory ink drawing, dated to Fontana’s early career in the late 1570s. And the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will send Portrait of Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni (circa 1590), that he recently acquired after surfacing at auction in Spain in 2021.

Fontana’s Portrait of Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni (around 1590) National Gallery of Art, Washington

Another “exciting revelation” will be Judith with the head of Holofernes (1600) from the Museo Davia Bargellini in Bologna, which has undergone a restoration especially for the exhibition. His shaded, “almost Caravaggesque” background turned out to be a later painting and has now been cleaned up to expose a bright palette that “completely changes our reading of the work”, says Brady.

One of the show’s goals is to showcase Fontana “as an artist and not just as a woman,” says Brady, hopefully inspiring new technical research into her still-mysterious studio practice. . “It will be very important for future scholarship that we all understand exactly how she worked, because otherwise it is impossible for us to unravel her work.”

Lavinia Fontana: pioneer, rule breakerNational Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 6 May-27 August

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