Lavinia Fontana is widely considered to be the first professional female artist. Although other female artists were active before Lavinia, none made painting their profession. Lavinia was a portraitist who worked throughout her eleven pregnancies. Eventually, Lavinia won prestigious commissions from popes and noble families. Yet, many of Lavinia’s greatest works were attributed to a male artist. Today, art historians have reclaimed Lavinia as one of the most important artists of the Italian Rennaisance, one worthy of an exhibition at the world’s finest museums.
Born in 1552 in Bologna, Italy, Lavinia trained as an artist under her father, Prospero Fontana. Prospero painted in the Mannerist style and was a prominent figure in the school of Bologna circle of painters. It was typical at the time for children to walk in their father's footsteps and continue the family business. But it was not typical for a young woman to become a successful, professional painter in her own right.
Lavinia began to earn a living from her art by painting small devotional images onto copper. Copper was valuable and the small paintings were often given as gifts to the church or royal family. Soon, Lavinia developed a name as a portrait painter and attracted Bologna’s nobility as clients. It was customary for wealthy, upper-class women to have their portraits painted. This was usually a tedious experience for the sitter who had to sit motionless, subject to a male gaze for a long period of time.
While Lavinia’s sex may have put her at a disadvantage in the wider art world, it was a clear advantage in portrait painting. Many women were more comfortable sitting for Lavinia than a male artist and found her personality warm. Lavinia developed such a close relationship with some of her portrait clients that they served as namesakes and godmothers to her children. One such woman was Constanza Sforza Boncompagni, the Duchess of Sora.
Lavina’s portraits are compared to those of Italian Rennaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Sofonisba was working as an artist before Lavinia. Yet, as Sofonisba was a noblewoman herself it was not considered proper for her to receive a fee for her work. As the daughter of a painter, Lavinia charged a fee for her portraits as any male artist would.
Like Sofonisba, Lavinia started her career painting portraits of noble women before moving onto large-scale religious paintings. Lavinia was commissioned to paint large altar-pieces in Bologna’s churches, an honor for any young artist. Word of Lavinia’s talent soon spread to other parts of Europe. In 1589, Lavinia painted Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child for the El Escorial church in Madrid. By the year 1600, Lavinia’s work was introduced to Rome.
Throughout her successful career, Lavinia was raising a large family. Lavinia married Paolo Zappi in 1577. Together, Paolo and Lavinia had eleven children, but only three of those children outlived Lavinia. Paolo was also a painter but instead of pursuing his own career he focused his energy on his wife’s success. As a married woman, Lavinia continued to paint and was the breadwinner of the family. Paolo took care of the Fontana-Zappa household and assisted his wife in the studio.
Lavinia got her degree from the University of Bologna in 1580 and elected a member of the Roman Academy later in her career. This was a very rare honor for a woman at the time. In 1603, Lavinia was invited to Rome by Pope Clement VIII where she worked under the patronage of the Buoncompagni. In Rome, Lavinia executed some of her largest and finest works including the Martyrdom of St Stephen for the San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome. Ranking among the most distinguished artists in Italy at the time, Lavinia even painted Pope Paul V himself. She was also immortalized in a bronze portrait medallion, designed by Felice Antonio Casoni and elected to the Accademia di San Luca of Rome. Lavinia died in Rome on August 11th, 1614, aged 61.
Over the course of her long career, Lavinia painted at least 100 paintings but many of them were lost to time. A number of portraits now proven to be Lavinia's were long thought to be the work of Guido Reni. Most notably, Lavinia’s Queen of Sheba Visiting Solomon was attributed to Reni. Even with this loss and misattribution, there are a total of 32 undisputed paintings signed and dated by Lavinia. A few dozen more have been attributed to her. This oeuvre is the biggest of any female artist working before the 18th century.
Lavinia painted self-portraits during her career, including Self Portrait at the Spinet (1577). In her self-portraits, Lavinia presents herself as a professional working artist and the distinguished matriarch of a large family. Through her art, Lavinia showed the world that she was more than capable of being both.