Friday 6 January 2023

Lavinia Fontana

 Talking of women artists, as we almost were the other day, this extraordinary picture turned up on Facebook yesterday – I can't remember where, or apropos of what, nor can I find it again. At first glance I thought it was some kind of funerary monument to a dead child, but a minute later I realised it was an extraordinary realistic painting of a definitely alive baby, lying on a child-sized bed of remarkable opulence. It is in fact the so-called Portrait of a Newborn Child in a Crib by Lavinia Fontana, a Bolognese mannerist painter active in the late 16th and early 17th century and renowned in her day for her portraits and, to a lesser extent, her religious paintings. She was the daughter of a well known painter, Prospero Fontana, which must have helped her early career, but from what I've seen of her work online, she had more than enough talent to succeed on her own.
  This supposed portrait of a newborn child is, of course, no such thing: the baby is several weeks old (and one wonders what kind of crib it is that has the baby lying on top, liable to roll over the edge). Everything about the picture – from the pearl necklace to the superfine bedclothes and the expensively worked bed – is designed to affirm the child's high status, but the baby looks out at the world as any baby would, with a calm, level, curious stare. This must surely have been painted from a real child, and Lavinia Fontana had plenty of experience of those, giving birth to eleven children, of whom, sadly, only three survived her. In a surely almost unique arrangement (at the time), her husband not only acted as her agent, securing her commissions, but also took care of most of their domestic arrangements, leaving Lavinia free to paint. Below is one of her rather wonderful self portraits...

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