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The Surprising Career of Lavinia Fontana: Painter of Popes, Nudes, and Noblewomen

Women Artists

The Surprising Career of Lavinia Fontana: Painter of Popes, Nudes, and Noblewomen

There weren’t very many women able to become successful artists in Renaissance Europe. There were probably more than most people think, and we try here at DailyArt to write about them as often as we can. But there still weren’t many. Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was definitely one of those rare few.

Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli, Holding a Dog and Surrounded by Six of Her Children, c. 1603-5. Present whereabouts unknown.

In fact, she seems to have been the first female to have a successful career in the art world without being connected to a court or convent. (Earlier successful women, like Plautilla Nelli, often flourished as part of a convent.) This made Fontana quite the groundbreaker.

Holy Family with Saint Catherine by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1581. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA.

Lavinia Fontana learned painting from her father, Prospero Fontana, who was a highly-respected artist in Bologna. For a long time, an artist dad was basically a prerequisite for female artists, since artistic training was otherwise difficult for women to come up. Better-known female artists Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1656) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) were taught by artist fathers as well. However, as was also true with those other women, it was Fontana’s talent and high-quality work that created her success, not family connections.

Portrait of a Girl by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Girl, 1580-3. Private collection.

Fontana is best known for her portraits, of which she made dozens. Many show very formal and well-dressed Italian nobles and dignitaries. Apparently, Bolognese noblewomen were her most dedicated patrons, but Bolognese religious figures like Pope Gregory XIII commissioned their portraits from her, too. Sources say that many of her portraits were “lavishly paid for”, which certainly sounds like a success story. She was so well regarded as a portrait painter that in 1603, Pope Clement VIII invited her to come live in Rome and paint Papal portraits.

Portrait of Gerolamo Mercuriale by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Gerolamo Mercuriale, 1588-9. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD.

Fontana also painted religious works, including several altarpieces for Italian and Spanish churches. That she received commissions to paint altarpieces is unusual for a female artist of this time. That she also made history paintings is even more unusual. But neither is as noteworthy as the fact that she sometimes included nude figures, which were generally off-limits to female artists for many centuries. Her nudes often appear as classical figures like Venus and Minerva.

Minerva Dressing by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana, Minerva Dressing, 1613. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Lavinia Fontana married a fellow artist who was also her father’s student. In a surprisingly modern arrangement, Fontana painted to support the family while her husband assisted in her work – he painted the draperies – and in raising their many children. But those eleven children didn’t stop her from many impressive achievements. In addition to everything else, she got her doctorate from the University of Bologna, and she also became a member of the Academy of Rome. She spent the last decade of her life living and working in Rome, where she was so highly esteemed that this beautiful bronze medal was sculpted in her honor. More recently, she was selected by Judy Chicago to have her name appear on the Heritage Floor of Chicago’s famous The Dinner Party installation at the Brooklyn Museum. (Some of our other favorite female artists appear, as well.) Alongside her other works, Fontana painted several self portraits showing herself as the successful artist and well-educated woman that she was. Seems like she earned it.

Lavinia Fontana Self Portrait in a Studio

Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait in a Studio, 1579. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

If you want to read about more female artists who aren’t well-known today, click here.


Bayer, Andrea. “Sixteenth-Century Painting in Emilia-Romagna” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.  (October 2006)

Christiansen, Keith & Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Harris, Ann Sutherland & Linda Nochlin. Women Artists 1550-1950. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. P. 111-114.

Fontana, Lavonia 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 10. Via Wikisource.

Lavinia Fontana“. Virtual Uffizi Gallery: The Unofficial Guide to the Uffizi.

Lavinia Fontana 1552-1614“. National Museum of Women in the Arts.

M. L. W. “Lavinia Fontana” in National Museum of Women in the Arts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.

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Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.


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