The dearth of famous paintings by female artists isn’t art history news, but after recently seeing the Guerilla Girls poster, Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met Museum?, I was curious – which woman in art history was first deemed a famous painter?

Introducing Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) of Bologna, Italy.

Renaissance art was informed by the guild system in Florence and Siena, which educated artists, helped with commissions, and discouraged female artists.  The system, though, was more relaxed in Northern Italian cities like Bologna. The daughter of Prospero Fontana, a Late Mannerist painter (and occasional head of the local painter’s guild), Lavinia was tutored by him and exposed to Renaissance art by Correggio, Raphael, and Parmigianino.

By the 1570s, Lavinia Fontana was a highly regarded painter not only of portraits — the typical, if only, option for female painters because they were forbidden to study anatomy – but also of large altarpieces, and art paintings depicting mythological and religious themes.  She was the most sought after portraitist in Bologna, and was patronized by the Bolognese Pope Gregory XIII.  When her reputation eclipsed that of her husband, the painter Gian Paolo Zappi, he became her assistant and primary caregiver for the couple’s eleven children.  After Fontana’s fame spread to Rome, she moved there to become a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V. 

Lavinia Fontana.  Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580.  Oil on canvas, 45 1/4″ by 35 1/4″.  National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.  Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay.

Portrait of a Noblewoman epitomizes Fontana’s technical prowess in what is believed to be a wedding portrait. Fontana’s use of  a dark background amplifies the noblewoman’s sumptuous attire. With light pouring in from the left, every reflection from her jewels is captured, as is the textural differences among the silk, satin and lace of her wedding attire (most Bolognese wedding dresses during the Renaissance were red).  The woman modestly averts her eyes from the viewer while she strokes a small dog, a frequent symbol of fidelity. Hanging from her belt and dangling in the foreground is an oddity – the pelt of a marten whose head and jaws are bejeweled, another marker of her wealth.

Lavinia Fontana accomplished some “firsts” in art history — she had a continuous 40 year long career; she produced some 135 art paintings, making her the first female artist in Western Europe to work competitively with men, outside a court or convent; and she had one, if not the, first stay-at-home husbandsl

Left: Self Portrait, Lavinia Fontana.