A 400-year-old painting by one of Europe’s first professional female artists, 16th-century Italian painter Lavinia Fontana, has found permanent residence at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. The painting is the first work by the artist to enter a public collection in the country, and it is one of only 30 paintings ever attributed to Fontana by historians.
The painting, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (circa 1575), depicts the biblical martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria experiencing a vision of Christ. The museum was able to purchase the painting through the Felton Bequest, a charitable fund established by early 20th-century Australian philanthropist Alfred Felton.
Fontana, born in 1552 in Bologna, Italy, is widely known as the first woman to launch a career as a professional painter in an urban studio in Europe. She began producing small-scale devotional paintings, many of which feature historical female figures. She then accepted major commissions which further elevated her career and later joined a prestigious guild of painters in Rome.
The present work will join another at the NGV by Fontana’s father, Prospero Fontana, titled The Holy Family with Saint Jerome, a female martyr and the infant Saint John the Baptist (c. 1552–55). This work was acquired through the Felton Bequest for the NGV in 1961.
News of the acquisition comes as museums around the world struggle to fill historical gaps in their permanent collections, which have left influential women artists disproportionately underrepresented. Female Old Masters have become a relatively new area of interest, with institutions purchasing important works by artists such as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Sofonisba Anguissola, etc.
NGV Director Tony Ellwood said the newly acquired work “speaks to [Fontana’s] prodigious talent”, since it was completed when the artist was in his early twenties. The painting’s addition to the collection marks one of many “key acquisitions in recent years that mark important steps towards addressing the historic gender imbalance”.