Sunday, October 30, 2016

1552-1614: Lavinia Fontana, Italian

Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant, 1577
Lavinia Fontana's contribution to the story of art was that she was the first woman who was able to succeed in the marketplace, without a royal patron, in direct competition for portrait commissions as well as works with religious and mythological scenes. In fact, she was the breadwinner for a large family, and, in a reversal of roles, her husband became the first known stay-at-home dad, as well as Lavinia's assistant in the studio. Lavinia's fame spread throughout Italy and beyond.

Background: Lavinia was born in Bologna, Italy, a city which took an exceptionally progressive attitude toward women, symbolized by the fact that the University there accepted women students as early as the 1200s. At least 23 female painters were active in Bologna in the 1500s and 1600s.

Lavinia was the daughter of a prominent painter, Prospero Fontana.

Training: The reason Lavinia was able to achieve such a high degree of success was that her father, Prospero, who had been a successful painter, served as her teacher and promoted her career. He developed her artistic skills, intellectual depth, and social graces.

Career: Prospero had a clear plan for Lavinia's career. One author claims that for the sake of respectability, he decided to marry her to a poor minor nobleman named Gian Paolo Zappi. According to their unusual marriage contract, Zappi, himself an artist, agreed to manage Lavinia's career, with Prospero's guidance, and to share her income with him.

Her first commissions were small devotional pictures on copper and children's portraits. In the late 1570s and early 1580s she painted several portraits of scholars and clerics, as portraits of cultural leaders were popular.

For over 20 years, beginning in the mid-1580s, she was the favorite portraitist for the noblewomen of Bologna. Her portraits combined naturalism with gravity. Her female subjects engage the viewer directly and confidently. For portraits, her strength is high fashion and abundant, exquisite detail.

Portrait of a Lady with a Dog, undated

Later, she executed many complicated multifigure compositions, one of the first women to do so. She was also the first woman artist to paint female nudes.

Bianca degli Utili Maselli and six of her children, around 1614
In 1603 Lavinia and her family moved to Rome at the invitation of the pope. Lavinia thrived in Rome, and the Pope himself was among her sitters. She won numerous honors there.

She produced 135 paintings, of which 30 are still known. At the height of her fame, Lavinia was a wealthy and celebrated woman.

Private life: At age 25, in 1577, Fontana married a fellow painter from a noble family. He acted as his wife's assistant and managed the household; the couple had eleven children; only three outlived their mother.

In her 50s, after Prospero died, Lavinia and her family moved to Rome, where she became portraitist to the Pope and received numerous honors.

My photo of Lavinia's work:

The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1581
LACMA / Jan's photo, 2014