Friday, January 16, 2015

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1490
21 x 15 in.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is perhaps the most famous artist of figure from the Italian Renaissance.  His paintings are among the most recognizable in the world and he is known for his inventions and scientific studies, considered the epitome of a Renaissance Man.  Lady with an Ermine is not quite as well known as some of da Vinci's other works, but is just as compelling. It is the second of four portraits that da Vinci painted of women (the others being Ginevra de' BenciLa belle ferronnière, and Mona Lisa).  This painting is of Cecilia Gallerini, the mistress of Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.  The painting shows the subject in a three-quarter profile, an innovation of Leonardo's, but while her body faces left, Gallerini turns her head to the right apparently looking at an unseen person.  This gives the painting a sense of movement and mystery, and engages the viewer from every angle.  Gallerini's dress is relatively simple, which may be to indicate that she was not a noblewoman.  Many possible interpretations have been offered for the significance of the ermine. It was considered a symbol of purity, as it was believed to prefer to die than dirty its white coat (indeed Leonardo makes two separate references to this idea in his writings).  It may also have been to connect her with the Duke, who held the ermine as a personal talisman, or a reference to Gallerini's pregnancy, as weasels were associated with childbearing and she did give birth to a son in 1491.  Whatever the symbolic meaning, the ermine is a fascinating element of the composition. It looks in the same direction as Gallerini, apparently united with her, as well as creating a second focal point.  Each element of this painting is rendered with beautiful precision.  Gallerini's hair is smooth, her long fingers are beautifully drawn, and her face is beautifully sculpted.  The drapery of Gallerini's dress and the hair of the ermine's white coat are perfectly represented.  This is a beautiful portrait that expresses the subject's youth and strength.  Cecilia Gallerini was an intelligent and accomplished woman; she presided over Milan's meetings to discuss philosophy and other intellectual matters, and she invited Leonardo to attend.  She was also a gifted musician and wrote poetry.  Although she was only seventeen when she sat for the painter, Leonardo clearly conveys the brilliance and complexity of this young woman.

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