Friday, May 3, 2024

Lavinia Fontana, Leading Artist, 1600 ad --- Day 13/121

Walk: AMC Kabuki (The Fall Guy)

Distance: 2 miles

Lavinia Fontana (Italy, 1552-1614) , Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children, ca. 1604-5. Oil on canvas, 39 x 53 1/4 in. (99.06 x 135.255 cm)

So, the Decorator Showcase designers (see previous CIWT) will likely cast admiring eyes at the Legion of Honor's newly acquired painting by Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana.  Look at those sumptuous fabrics, the haute couture fitting of each family member's outfit, the lengthly strand of enormous matching pearls.

If you can make them out, that is.  The painting is remarkably preserved having been in one family for over four hundred years, so the overall dark tones are not due to accumulated dirt and grime.  Instead the reddish brown ground layer was likely achieved by the artist's decision to grind and reuse broken clay bricks for her colors. In fact, the trend of using darker colored grounds was only just taking hold in Bologna where the multiple portrait was painted and indicates Fontana was up to date with the newest technical developments in her field.

Up to date is the least of it.  Livinia Fontana, an unusual woman in unusual circumstances, was far ahead of her time in many regards.  First, of course, in her natural talent, which was honed by her father who was a recognized artist in his own right. Second by the good fortune of being born in Bologna at a time when elite women had greater opportunities to participate in public life and women artists had more chance at acceptance.

The rest was up to Fontana's strong vision for fashioning her own life and career - eventually establishing herself as the first female career artist in Western Europe. Instead of offering a traditional dowry at her wedding, Fontana offered her ability to paint - and this was accepted.  She earned commissions for her income; her family relied on her career as a painter; her father retired and became her painting assistant; her husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, gave up his own career, raised their 11 children, managed her studio  and served as her agent.  That last, was of paramount importance because, even in the comparatively liberal city of Bologna, she would have needed a man to engage in business negotiations on her behalf.

While Bolognese society at large was supportive of Fontana's artistic career it was the newly empowered uppper class women who became Fontana's initial core clientele. With their patronage and increasingly important commissions, by the end of the 1550's, she was the uncontested portraitist of Bolognese noblewomen. 

And as her fame grew within and beyond Italy, Fontana had vision, ambition and courage to move her studio and family to Rome. There too, in that competitive, cosmopolitan, male city, she thrived as she had in Bologna. Even Pope Paul V himself was one of her sitters.  Over her thirty plus year career, Lavinia Fontana became the recipient of numerous honors and is today regarded as the first highly successful woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent. And San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums and its visitors are fortunate to now have this work by such an enterprising, talented and successful woman artist in its collection and on view.

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