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Exhibitions: Huon Mallalieu: Lavinia Fontana

Blog | By Huon Mallalieu | Aug 25, 2023

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, 1599

The subtitle of this exhibition is Trailblazer, Rule Breaker – and that certainly applies to Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614).

There had been female artists before but, in the words of Dr Caroline Campbell (herself the first woman to direct a National Gallery in the British Isles), those we know of had worked within ‘the rarefied confines of a convent or court’.

Sofonisba Anguissola, the older contemporary whom she credited as an inspiration, was one who flourished at courts, but Fontana was the first documented female artist to run her own workshop.

She was lucky in her place of birth. Bologna, probably the oldest university in the world, awarded its first degree to a woman in 1237. As one of the more loosely controlled papal states, the city was ruled by 40 families rather than just one, and artists could be at least minor aristocrats.

Furthermore, her family were actively supportive, with her father, Prospero, not only teaching her but negotiating a remarkable marriage contract, which is in the show. Her husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, was happy to be her business manager.

An equally remarkable exhibit is the record he kept of the baptisms and frequent deaths of the 11 children she bore during her working years. It is notable that the three survivors, and Zoppi himself, changed their name to Fontana.

Fontana outstripped her father and in turn became the family’s support when he fell ill. She built up a formidable practice as a portrait-painter in Bologna, especially of ladies. It is hard to think of any

contemporaries who could match her genius in painting, fabrics and jewels.

I spent at least five minutes in close study of the queen’s dress in the NGI’s own Solomon and Sheba. Every gold thread seems tangible, and the hundreds of pearls three-dimensional. That painting dates from Fontana’s later years when, freed from pregnancies, she could produce larger works, and the family moved to Rome. Despite the ban on women studying from life, she even produced striking nudes, some for cardinals.

A feature of her portraits, particularly but not only of children, is the direct look many of her sitters give us, their audience. Other than in self-portraits included in crowds for promotional purposes, that is very rare in Italian painting of the period.

This is a most impressive show of just 66 exhibits, including documents and objects to give context, and it plays a fascinating light on Fontana’s methods.