Our first modern day professional Artist & Mother...

Lavinia Fontana

Born August 24, 1552 in Bologna Italy - Died August 11, 1614 in Rome

Self-Portrait in the Studiolo by Lavinia Fontana c. 1579 oil on copper

Hanging in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, I have been fortunate to see this piece in person!


I’m not necessarily going to continue in chronological order with this female artist series, but to kick us off with a good early foundation, it makes sense for me to go with Lavinia Fontana next to illustrate those deep roots of modern day female artists.


Sofonisba (from my last blog post) and Lavinia broke down stereotypes assigned to women in relation to the practice of art and overturned skepticism about women’s artistic abilities. (Thank you very much!) It’s interesting to see how these Renaissance women ‘broke the glass ceiling’ during that time. Lavinia's story has similarities as well as stark differences to Sofonisba's path.


Lavinia is considered “the first professional female painter in Italy” and you could even stretch that to be the first in Western Europe. She was the first female artist to rely on commissions for her income from patrons and did not need to rely on the royalty to support her, as Sofonisba did. A badge of honor to highlight her true entry into the world of a professional artist, her patrons and prices were similar to Caravaggio - a very famous Italian male painter of the time period. She is best known for her portraiture, but also worked in mythology and religious painting.


Perhaps, she was the first woman to paint female nudes, but this is a topic of controversy among art historians.

Portrait of Minerva dressing by Lavinia Fontana c. 1613 Oil


Lavinia was born August 24,1552 in Bologna Italy. The daughter of Prospero Fontana, an Italian Mannerist artist and teacher of modest socio-economic status. Prospero Fontana had two daughters - Emilia and his youngest Lavinia. He saw that Lavinia had artist talent and lavished his attention on her artist growth. This was very similar to Sofonisba's up bringing, who was also a daughter of a male artist and teacher. In these times, this was a way that a woman who wanted to pursue art could receive artistic training. Lavinia was lucky enough to also have the opportunity to study at the University of Bologna where she received a degree.


In the years before Lavinia was of an age to marry, Prospero’s fortunes dwindled. So he had to get creative for a dowry for his daughter. He made a plan… He would hone her talent, use his noble, social and scholarly connections and cultivate a painting career for Lavinia. Hopefully, that would be enough to attract a husband that would support her and her talents, showing a ‘worth’ beyond a dowry!

Noli me tangere by Lavinia Fontana c. 1581 Oil

Hanging at the Uffizi Galleries, so I've seen this piece in person too!

Prospero’s list for a potential husband included: good morale repute and high social standing, willing to marry an artisan, content to live in his father-in-law’s house and be prepared to accept his future wife as the primary breadwinner. This was a tall order in Renaissance times!


But he managed to find the son of a successful merchant from Imola, Paolo Zappi, himself an artist as well. The marriage agreement stipulated that Lavinia’s potential for earning money through her art was enough of a reason to not require an extravagant dowry. Paolo accepted this proposal along with the stipulation that his father-in-law (now needing money himself) would live with the couple. Paolo and Lavinia were married February 14, 1577 - when Lavinia was 25 years old. Very late for Renaissance standards!

Self-Portrait At The Spinet by Lavinia Fontana c. 1577


This self-portrait was painted just before her marriage, showing an elegant young woman playing the spinet, with an easel placed behind her by the window. She gazes at the viewer showing quiet confidence in her talents, both musical and pictorial.


Lavinia began her path to artistic success for her family’s sake. She took over the family workshop from her father, employing her husband as manager and ‘stay at home Dad’. Paola gave up his career to be her assistant - both professionally and personally. They would have 11 children that he would be responsible for raising while she supported the entire family from her income alone. Not a typical Renaissance marriage!


Since the couple was living with extended family - Lavinia’s parents - it was more of a ‘family affair’ to support Lavinia, her career and her 11 children. Having a husband and children, also helped her fit the current social construct for the ‘expectations of a woman’.

Newborn In The Cradle by Lavinia Fontana c. 1583 Oil


Lavinia’s freedom to engage in the art world now increased. She was able to meet society standards and interact with the world at large through a career. Unlike her female contemporaries, such as Sofonisba, her world was not limited to the female court of a queen or a convent. Instead, she had a larger sphere of potential clients.


Lavina’s early patrons consisted of wealthy noble women looking for portraits, often with their lap dogs. Women of all stages of life were able to admit Lavinia into their domestic spheres to paint them as well as their children without a chaperone. As such, Lavinia became popular among the female nobility. She was adept at creating their likeness, as well as showing the splendor of their Bolognese fashions of gold stitching, lace adornments, beaded design and fine jewelry.

Portrait of Ginervra Aldrovandi Hercolani bu Lavinia Fontana c.1595 Oil


Ginevra Aldrovandi's husband, the Bolognese senator Ercole Hercolani, died in 1593. Her elaborate mourning costume with costly brocade, lace, and pearls indicates her high social status. She holds a handkerchief, suggesting the tears she shed at her husband's death. The lapdog is her pet, but it also carries symbolic significance. During the 16th century, a widow who did not re-marry, staying faithful to her husband's memory, was often compared to a dog that was faithful to its master.



Lavinia was also painting portraits of men from her father’s connections, who wanted to collect portraits of their friends. Acquaintances who met through correspondence became interested in seeing pictures of each other. One gentleman amassed such a large collection of portraits that he had to build a villa to house it! This international social networking formed the basis of relationships that would ultimately lead to commissions from the Medici family.