The Prominent Career of Lavinia Fontana
Welcome back from spring break!
I spent my break on an art vacation in Rome. (This sounds much more glamorous than my life usually is. I can assure you that I am currently sitting in my 1 bedroom apartment wearing cat-hair-covered Star Wars pajamas while eating Thin Mints. That’s my usual level of glamour.) During my art adventures, I gave myself a mission to search for female artists of whom I was previously unaware. I was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised. In all the galleries and churches I went to, I found only one named female artist. Her name was Lavinia Fontana, and I saw four of her paintings while I was in Rome.
Despite the fact that I received an art history education in the 21st-century, female artists went largely unmentioned during my four years of classes. So, I have determined to fill-in the gaps of my male-driven education (sorry, dudes, but in four years I had only one female art history professor) and to learn the names of the women marginalized by history and circumstance. This is the first part in a series I will dedicate to highlighting the careers of female artists in Western history. I’ll do what I do best, reading and research, and I’ll pass-on what I have learned to you.
Who was Lavinia Fontana?
Lavinia Fontana was a total badass. She was one of the few female artists who was considered a master, and the first female artist to work in the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside of a court or a convent. She painted portraits and religious works, highly-ranked genres for any artist, and her commissions came from some of the most influential people of her time. She gained the favor of two popes and countless nobles, whose portraits she painted. She earned awards only ever given to male artists before her, and she is considered to have the largest body of work for any female artist before the 18th-century. She also did this while being nearly constantly pregnant, giving birth to 11 children.
How was a woman able to make a name for herself as an artist in the 16th-century?
In the 16th-century, noble women did not sell their labor. It was considered that the only honorable place for a woman was the home. Lavinia was able to break those rules, and she made a name for herself, but how did she do it? After all, it’s not as if she was the only female artist working at the time, but Lavinia’s fame far outstripped her contemporaries. Lavinia was born the daughter of the painter, Prospero Fontana, who had been relatively successful in their hometown of Bologna. He also received important commissions, and at a time when painters were considered artisans, he considered himself a noble artist and a man of letters who saw heights for himself far beyond his birth and circumstance. Unfortunately, he spent his money poorly, and when it came time for Lavinia to marry, the family had spent their fortune. At 16, with no dowry, it was unlikely Lavinia would be able to make a good marriage. This may be the entire reason behind why Lavinia began her art training– her father hoped to give her a money-making trade so that she had something after his death. From the ages of 16-23, Lavinia trained in private. She had been raised as a noble lady, with all the benefits of that education, but she now trained in earnest as an artist. When she made her début, her work was considered on par with her father’s, and it didn’t take long before she moved beyond his sphere of influence and began to produce works that showed both great skill and innovation.
It wasn’t easy to be a working female artist, and Lavinia had to tread carefully to avoid scandal. She would never have been allowed to work alongside men in a workshop. She was also not allowed to study from live-models. Though she is the first Western female artist to ever depict a female nude, she was only allowed to make artistic observations from existing Greek and Roman sculpture. She even included references to these sculptures in her paintings to ensure that viewers did not think she studied from live models. Before her marriage, she signed all of her paintings as “The Virgin Daughter of Prospero Fontana”, to further indicate her virtue to the public.
Her Easel as a Dowry
In a time when women of her class had dowries, she had none, but marriage would be essential to her career. Her father knew that, after his death, she would need male guidance, or her career would die. Women were not allowed to conduct business in the public sphere or to sign contracts. So Prospero began a search for a noble husband, who would accept his daughter’s artistic career. From Lavinia’s self-portraits and letters, we know that she considered her easel her dowry. In 1577, she married a noble painter, Gian Paolo Zappi, who recognized her superior skill and gave-up his career to help further hers, and she became the bread-winner of the family. Her husband became her agent in all things business so that she was free to operate as an artist without public scandal. He also acted as her painting assistant, stepping in where a male artist would have had a workshop. He even helped to care for the children while Lavinia worked.
Through her father’s careful planning, Lavinia had all she needed to make her way as an artist. She had inherited his workshop, honed her skill, and married well. Unprecedented in her time, she became a female master without scandal and was widely accepted as a master in Bologna and, later, in Rome.
The Genius of Lavinia
She was more than just a painter of pretty portraits and small devotional works. Her portraits showed an unmistakable understanding of the psychology of the sitter and proved that she was influenced by the art scene of her time. Her works show both innovations and mastery, which is why she was so renowned.
Her devotional works came at the time of the Counter Reformation, and through them she demonstrates her keen understanding of the perceived didactic purpose of religious works. Her paintings were also large enough to grace important churches and altar pieces, not just small personal devotions. Her fame was not inflated because she was a woman, she had become famous for her skill, and her career would have been the envy of her male contemporaries.
The World Rediscovers Lavinia Fontana
For many years after her death, Lavinia’s career was forgotten and marginalized by historians who saw her paintings and often confused them for the master, Guido Reni. Her oeuvre was rediscovered by women scholars who fostered her revival by publishing a catalogue of her work in 1989 and then organizing an exhibition in 1998. In 2003, Caroline Murphy published the book, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna, which outlines how a woman was able to become one of the most celebrated painters of the day. If you want to learn more, check out a local library (the book isn’t cheap), and it’s the only book dedicated to Lavinia that isn’t in Italian.
Today, let’s remember that not all artists were Ninja Turtles. There were women like Lavinia Fontana taking up the brush and creating masterpieces that rivaled their male peers, at a time when women were not considered to have male peers.