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National Gallery of Victoria acquires Lavinia Fontana painting, first woman professional painter in Europe
Lavinia Fontana, Mystic marriage of St Catherine c. 1575. Oil on copper, 48.5 x 33.6 cm. Felton Bequest, 2021. Image: Eugene Hyland.

MELBOURNE.- Italian artist Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is widely recognised as the first woman to become a professional painter in Europe, winning many prestigious commissions and becoming the first woman admitted into the illustrious guild for painters in Rome, the Accademia di San Luca. Generously acquired by the Felton Bequest, Fontana’s Mystic marriage of St Catherine, c. 1575, is the first painting by this important artist to enter a public collection in Australia and brings a new perspective to the NGV’s strong holdings of Italian Baroque paintings.

Fontana established her reputation by producing portraits and small devotional works, such as Mystic marriage of St Catherine. This painting illustrates a vision experienced by the Christian martyr, St Catherine of Alexandria (c. 287 – c. 305 CE), in which she consecrated herself to Christ. Catherine lived in Egypt when it was under Roman rule and was persecuted for her Christian beliefs. In a desperate act to change her faith, Emperor Maxentius tried to make Catherine marry him, but she refused him and dedicated herself to Christ.

Many of Fontana’s early works featured strong and powerful women from ancient mythology and Christian history. As well as St Catherine, St Elisabeth, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, she also painted the Old Testament heroine Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes, and the goddess Venus.

Fontana was actively encouraged by her parents to be an artist – an extraordinarily enlightened act for the time. Her father, Prospero Fontana, was her teacher and strongly promoted her career. Lavinia Fontana’s painting will sit in the NGV Collection alongside one by her father, Holy Family with Saint Jerome, a female martyr and the infant Saint John the Baptist, c. 1552–1555, which was also acquired by the Felton Bequest for the NGV in 1961.

Tony Ellwood AM, Director of the NGV, said: ‘This extraordinary painting is one of Fontana’s earliest works and, painted while the artist was still in her early twenties, speaks to her prodigious talent. This is a significant addition to the NGV Collection and joins other key acquisitions in recent years that take important steps towards addressing historical gender imbalances by highlighting the artistic accomplishments of women throughout art history.

‘Mystic marriage of St Catherine is the earliest work by a known female artist to enter the Gallery’s collection and it establishes a legacy that will resonate with generations of visitors. The NGV has been investigating this particular artist for many years and are grateful to the Felton Bequest for generously acquiring this work for the NGV. The Felton Bequest has significantly assisted the growth and development of the NGV Collection, making it one of the finest collections of art in our region,’ said Ellwood.

Sir Andrew Grimwade, Chairman of the Felton Bequests’ Committee, said: ‘The Felton Bequest is delighted to gift this masterpiece by Lavinia Fontana to the NGV. Painted over more than 400 years ago, it is sure to be seen as one of the Felton Bequest’s great acquisitions, reflecting Alfred Felton’s vision and legacy. The Felton Bequest is thrilled that this painting is also by the world’s first professional woman artist – and her first to enter a public collection in Australia.’

Lavinia Fontana’s Mystic marriage of St Catherine is on display on Level 1 at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Free entry. Further information is available via the NGV website: NGV.MELBOURNE

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