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Lady with an Ermine

Lady with an Ermine

Overview
Lady with an Ermine is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

, from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is identified as Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani , born in Siena, Italy, was the favourite and most celebrated of the many mistresses of Ludovico Sforza, known as Lodovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. She is best known as the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Lady with an Ermine...

, and was probably painted at a time when she was the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan
Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke.

The painting is one of only four female portraits painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa is a portrait by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. It is a painting in oil on a poplar panel, completed circa 1503–1519...

, the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci
Ginevra de' Benci
Ginevra de' Benci was an aristocrat from 15th-century Florence, admired for her intelligence by Florentine contemporaries. She is the subject of a portrait painting by Leonardo da Vinci...

 and La belle ferronnière.
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Encyclopedia
Lady with an Ermine is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

, from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is identified as Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani , born in Siena, Italy, was the favourite and most celebrated of the many mistresses of Ludovico Sforza, known as Lodovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. She is best known as the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Lady with an Ermine...

, and was probably painted at a time when she was the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan
Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke.

The painting is one of only four female portraits painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa is a portrait by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. It is a painting in oil on a poplar panel, completed circa 1503–1519...

, the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci
Ginevra de' Benci
Ginevra de' Benci was an aristocrat from 15th-century Florence, admired for her intelligence by Florentine contemporaries. She is the subject of a portrait painting by Leonardo da Vinci...

 and La belle ferronnière. It is displayed by the Czartoryski Museum
Czartoryski Museum
The Czartoryski Museum and Library is a museum located in Kraków, Poland, founded in Puławy in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska. The Puławy collections were partly destroyed after the November uprising of 1830–1831 and the subsequent confiscation of the Czartoryskis' property by the Russians...

, Kraków
Kraków
Kraków also Krakow, or Cracow , is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life...

, Poland
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

 and is cited in the museum's guide as the first truly modern portrait. When exhibited in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston , located in Houston, is one of the largest museums in the United States. The permanent collection of the museum spans more than 6,000 years of history with more than 62,000 works from six continents....

, it was described as "signal[ling] a breakthrough in the art of psychological portraiture".

Subject and symbolism


The small portrait generally called The Lady with the Ermine was painted in oils on wooden panel by Leonardo da Vinci. At the time of its painting, the medium of oil paint
Oil paint
Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil, commonly linseed oil. The viscosity of the paint may be modified by the addition of a solvent such as turpentine or white spirit, and varnish may be added to increase the glossiness of the...

 was relatively new to Italy, having been introduced in the 1470s. Leonardo was one of those artists who adopted the new medium and skillfully exploited its qualities. The sitter has been identified with reasonable security as Cecilia Gallerani who was the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Lodovico Sforza, known as Lodovico il Moro.

At the time of her portrait, Cecilia was about sixteen. She was one of a large family, neither rich nor noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke's court. Cecilia was renowned for her beauty, her scholarship, and her poetry. She was betrothed at the age of about ten years to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti but the marriage was called off. Cecilia became the mistress of the Duke and bore him a son, but he chose to marry a girl from a nobler family, Beatrice d'Este
Beatrice d'Este
Beatrice d'Este , duchess of Milan, one of the most beautiful and accomplished princesses of the Italian Renaissance, was the daughter of Ercole I d'Este and younger sister of Isabella d'Este and Alfonso d'Este....

.

The painting shows a half-length figure, the body of the young woman turned at a three-quarter angle towards her right, but her face turned towards her left. Her gaze is directed neither straight ahead, nor towards the viewer, but towards a "third party" beyond the picture's frame. In her arms Cecilia holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine
Ermine
Ermine has several uses:* A common name for the stoat * The white fur and black tail end of this animal, which is historically worn by and associated with royalty and high officials...

. Cecilia's dress is comparatively simple, revealing that she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure, known as a "coazone", confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of hair bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band and a sheath over the plait.

There are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in her portrait. The ermine, a stoat
Stoat
The stoat , also known as the ermine or short-tailed weasel, is a species of Mustelid native to Eurasia and North America, distinguished from the least weasel by its larger size and longer tail with a prominent black tip...

 in its winter coat, was a traditional symbol
Symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

 of purity because it was believed that an ermine would face death rather than soil its white coat: Leonardo amused himself by compiling a bestiary
Bestiary
A bestiary, or Bestiarum vocabulum is a compendium of beasts. Bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals, birds and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson...

 in his old age; in it he recorded
MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity";

he repeats in another note, "Moderation curbs all the vices. The ermine prefers to die rather than soil itself."
Ermines were kept as pets by the aristocracy and their white pelts were used to line or trim aristocratic garments. For Ludovico il Moro the ermine had a further personal significance in that he had been in the Order of the Ermine
Order of the Ermine
The Order of the Ermine was a chivalric order of the 14th and 15th centuries in the Duchy of Brittany. The ermine is the emblem of Brittany...

 in 1488 and used it as a personal emblem. The association of the ermine with Cecilia could have been multiply intended, referring to her purity and to the status of her lover. Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on her name because the Greek for ermine is galay. This would be in keeping with Leonardo's placement of a juniper
Juniper
Junipers are coniferous plants in the genus Juniperus of the cypress family Cupressaceae. Depending on taxonomic viewpoint, there are between 50-67 species of juniper, widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, from the Arctic, south to tropical Africa in the Old World, and to the...

 bush behind the figure in his portrait of Ginevra de Benci in reference to her name. Given that Gallerani gave birth to a son acknowledged by Lodovico in May of 1491, and the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, it is also possible that the animal was a symbol of Cecilia's pregnancy. In addition, it has been speculated that the animal in the painting appears to be not an ermine but a white ferret
Ferret
The ferret is a domesticated mammal of the type Mustela putorius furo. Ferrets are sexually dimorphic predators with males being substantially larger than females. They typically have brown, black, white, or mixed fur...

, a colour favoured in the Middle Ages because of the ease of seeing the white animal in thick undergrowth.

As in many of Leonardo's paintings, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo's life-long preoccupation with the dynamics of movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Il Moro's court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni
Bernardo Bellincioni
Bernardo Bellincioni was an Italian poet, who began his career in the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. In 1483 he was at the Gonzaga court and in 1485 he moved to Milan, where he was the court poet of Lodovico Sforza, the patron of Leonardo da Vinci...

, was the first to propose that Cecilia is poised as if listening to an unseen speaker.

This work in particular shows Leonardo's expertise in painting the human form. The outstretched hand of Cecilia was painted with great detail. Leonardo paints every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.

Conservation


The ‘’Lady with an ermine’’ has been subject to two detailed laboratory examinations. The first was in the Warsaw Laboratories, the findings being published by K. Kwiatkowski in 1955. In 1992, the painting underwent examination and restoration in the Washington National Gallery Laboratories
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden is a national art museum, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, in Washington, DC...

 under the supervision of David Bull.

The painting is in oil on a thin walnut wood panel, about 4 to 5 mm thick, prepared with a layer of white gesso
Gesso
Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these...

 and a layer of brownish underpaint. The panel is in good condition apart from a break to the upper left side of the picture. Its size has never been altered, as indicated by a narrow unpainted strip on all four sides of the painting. The background was thinly overpainted with unmodulated black, probably between 1830 and 1870, when the damaged corner was restored. It has been suggested that it was Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school...

 who painted the background. The previous colour of the background was a bluish grey.

X-ray and microscopic analysis have revealed the charcoal-pounced outline of the pricked preparatory drawing on the prepared undersurface, a technique Leonardo learned in the studio of Verrocchio.

The painted surface reveals that apart from the black of the background, and some abrasion caused by cleaning, the painting is almost entirely by the master’s hand. There has been some slight retouching of her features in red, and the edge of the veil in ochre. Some scholars believe that there is also some later retouching of the hands. Leonardo's fingerprints have been found in the surface of the paint indicating that he used his fingers to blend his delicate brushstrokes. Kwiatkowski observed that Leonardo had used his left hand to paint the coat of the ermine.

Provenance


The painting was acquired in Italy by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski
Adam Jerzy Czartoryski
Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski was a Polish-Lithuanian noble, statesman and author. He was the son of Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and Izabela Fleming....

, the son of Princess Izabela Czartoryska and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski in 1798 and incorporated into the Czartoryskis’ family collections at Puławy in 1800. The inscription on the top-left hand corner of the painting, LA BELE FERIONIERE. LEONARD D'AWINCI., was probably added by a restorer shortly after its arrival in Poland
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

, and before the background was overpainted. Czartoryski was clearly aware that it was a Leonardo, though the painting had not ever been discussed in print; unfortunately, there is no record of any previous owner. The Belle Ferronière
La Belle Ferronière
La belle ferronnière is a name often applied to a portrait of a woman in the Musée du Louvre, traditionally attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. It is also simply known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman. The Louvre currently ascribes it to the school of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan...

is the Leonardo portrait in the Louvre, whose sitter bears such a close resemblance that the Czartoryskis considered this sitter to be the same. The painting travelled extensively in the nineteenth century; Princess Czartoryski rescued it in advance of the invading Russian army in 1830, hid it, then sent it to Dresden and on to the Czartoryski place of exile in Paris, the Hôtel Lambert
Hôtel Lambert
Hôtel Lambert is a hôtel particulier, a grand mansion townhouse, on the Quai Anjou on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, Paris IVème; the name, Hôtel Lambert, was a sobriquet that designated a 19th-century political faction of Polish exiles, who gathered there.-Architectural history:The house...

, returning it to Kraków
Kraków
Kraków also Krakow, or Cracow , is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life...

 in 1882. In 1939, almost immediately after the German occupation of Poland, it was seized by the Nazis
Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

 and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. In 1940 Hans Frank
Hans Frank
Hans Michael Frank was a German lawyer who worked for the Nazi party during the 1920s and 1930s and later became a high-ranking official in Nazi Germany...

, the Governor General of Poland, requested that it be returned to Kraków, where it hung in his suite of offices. At the end of the Second World War it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Bavaria
Bavaria
Bavaria, formally the Free State of Bavaria is a state of Germany, located in the southeast of Germany. With an area of , it is the largest state by area, forming almost 20% of the total land area of Germany...

. It has since returned to Poland and is once more on display at the Czartoryski Museum
Czartoryski Museum
The Czartoryski Museum and Library is a museum located in Kraków, Poland, founded in Puławy in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska. The Puławy collections were partly destroyed after the November uprising of 1830–1831 and the subsequent confiscation of the Czartoryskis' property by the Russians...

in Kraków.

In the book of 1877 about Leonardo it is said that the location of Cecilia's portrait is not known and its owners in the eighteenth century are mentioned: "It is said that the original portrait of the beautiful Cecilia was, during the last century, in the possession of the Marquis Boursane at Milan. But where is it now?". Perhaps Adam Czartoryski bought the picture from them. Currently the painting is in Old Town, Kraków, on display at the Royal Castle.

External links