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Lavinia Fontana Gets 1st U.S. Show

February 9, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Four centuries after she created as many as 800 paintings, the first professional woman painter finally is having some of her work displayed in the United States.

Some believe that Lavinia Fontana died of exhaustion. But Susan Sterling, chief curator at the host National Museum of Women in the Arts, noted that she lived to 62. That was old age in the Italy of 1614, and only three of her 11 children survived her.

The exhibition, which includes 24 of about 130 surviving works, opened last week and will be on display through June 7.

Ms. Sterling sees Fontana as an innovator _ painting nudes, for example, at a time when women did not do such things.

``Not only wasn’t she permitted to paint from the nude (models), so she couldn’t document her work anatomically, but it wasn’t considered seemly for a woman to do it at all,″ she said in an interview.

In her later years a medal was struck in Fontana’s honor. On one side she is depicted formally. The other side shows her painting furiously, barefoot and with her hair disheveled. An inscription, freely translated, reads:

``Art keeps me in a joyful frenzy.″

Fontana had much of her success with portraits of elaborately dressed and bejeweled noblewomen. But her last work was a nude portrayal of Minerva about to put on an embroidered gown, a work commissioned by a Roman cardinal. The nudity of the virgin goddess was seen by some as a symbol of chastity.

``However, in this work light and color ... emphasize the goddess’ sensuality,″ wrote Vera Fortunati, who teaches history and art at the university in Fontana’s native Bologna and is curator of the Washington show.

Fontana died a year after finishing that work and was buried in Rome at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, built over a temple that the ancient Romans had dedicated to the goddess.

The daughter of a painter highly regarded in his day, Fontana was brought up in the profession. Her father married her to another of his pupils, the son of a rich merchant with good contacts in the church. The marriage contract spoke of the earnings she was expected to make in work with him. A mediocre painter himself, he took over the business side. The museum suggests he also helped bring up the 11 children.

One of Fontana’s paintings brought 1,000 ducats from King Philip II of Spain in 1589. Ms. Fortunati did not have an equivalent, but was certain that it would be a large amount of money in today’s currency.

``Something like a Picasso,″ she said in an interview.

The gold in a ducat coin would make 1,000 of them worth about $36,000 today.

Fontana’s painting of the Holy Family is still in the Escorial, the monastery-tomb Philip built in the mountains near Madrid. The Escorial would not lend it for the show, Ms. Fortunati said.

Two popes were Fontana’s patrons. She did portraits of churchmen, professors, politicians, bankers and important women in Bologna’s society.

Her popularity was increased by her realistic detail of sumptuous gowns, jewelry and household objects, a skill gained from a knowledge of Flemish painters who had made that a specialty.

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