The Artist: Born in 1552 in Bologna, Lavinia Fontana was taught to paint by her father, a prosperous local artist aptly named Prospero. While Lavinia was most likely not allowed to work in her father’s studio among his apprentices, she pursued her training by drawing members of her entourage. By the mid-1580s, her reputation and social connections had attracted a wealthy clientele delighted with her sophisticated portraits. Around 1603, Fontana moved her large family (she had 11 children) to Rome to become a painter for Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII. There, she worked on commissions for cardinals, ambassadors and princes, and executed some large-scale altarpieces–a rarity for a woman artist.
The Portrait: As a pre-eminent painter of the Bolognese elite, Lavinia portrayed noble wives, daughters, and widows. Portrait of Noblewoman likely depicts a young bride as suggested by her over-dress of embossed red velvet and satin yellow bodice underneath. Other clues about the young woman’s status include her chaste and disciplined demeanor as well as the curious item hanging from her waist: a bejeweled pelt of a marten. A slender, minklike creature, martens were associated with fertility. Finally, the fashionable and costly lap dog known as “cane Bolognese” (present in many of Fontana’s portraits), was a well-known symbol of a spouse’s fidelity to her husband