Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Lady with an Ermine: Portrait of a Lover

Lady with an Ermine is one of four portraits of women painted by Leonardo Da Vinci during his career and demonstrates his expertise in capturing the details of the human form. In this article, Singulart investigates Da Vinci’s life as well as that of the painting’s subject. 

Who was Leonardo Da Vinci? 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath and the archetypal “Renaissance Man”. Although he is most renowned today for his skills as a painter, his interests and skills ranged from drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and history to engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy and cartography. 

Etching of da Vinci painter of Lady with an Ermine
Etching of da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Piero Da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman named Caterina, and was born in Vinci, Florence. Ruled by the Medici family, Florence was considered the cradle of the Renaissance during Da Vinci’s lifetime. He was educated in the Florentine studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460’s, where he received a thorough theoretical training. By 1472, he had qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors, and although his father helped him set up his own workshop, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio.

Da Vinci’s earliest surviving work is a pen and ink drawing of the Arno Valley from 1473. Soon after he established his own workshop, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and another for the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. However, Da Vinci completed neither of these projects as he abandoned them to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan from 1482 to 1499. During this time he painted, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve by Leonardo da Vinci made in 1473
Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve by Leonardo da Vinci made in 1473

Relocation to Venice and Political Unrest in Italy

Ludovico Sforza was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War and thus Leonardo, along with his assistant Salai and his friend, the renowned mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled to Venice. Here he worked as a military architect and engineer, designing defense plans to protect the city from naval attack. He returned to Florence in 1500 and lived as a guest of the monks of the Santissima Annunziata monastery, where he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which according to the art historian Vasari, was hugely popular. 

Da Vinci then went on to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military architect, engineer and cartographer until he returned to Florence and the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. It was at this time that he began to work on his most famous painting, a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, now known as The Mona Lisa. It is speculated that he worked on this until his final years. 

In 1515, King Francis I of France captured Milan and the following year Leonardo entered his service where he drew up architectural plans for a castle town and other inventions. Da Vinci died in France in 1519, in the house given to him by Francis I. 

Who is the Lady with an Ermine?

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-90
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-90

Lady with an Ermine is one of four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, in addition to the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de Benci and La Belle Ferronière. It depicts Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536), the mistress of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, at the time it was painted. She came from a large Sienese family and her father worked in the Duke’s court, however she was neither wealthy nor noble. She received an education in latin and literature alongside her six brothers and in 1483 she was betrothed to Stefano Visconti although it was broken off in 1487 and two years later she left home for the Monastero Nuovo where it is thought she first met Ludovico.

It was in this same year, at the age of 16 that she sat for her portrait with Leonardo, the Duke’s court painter at the time. She was renowned for her beauty, poetry and scholarship and she remained the Duke’s mistress after his marriage to Beatrice d’Este and bore him a son in 1491. Shortly after their son was born Beatrice forced the Duke to end the relationship and Cecilia was married to a local count, Ludovico Carminati de Brambilla. 

Lady with an Ermine, Technical Composition and Artistic Flair

In Lady with an Ermine her figure is cropped at half-height and turned at a three-quarter angle to the right and she holds a white ermine in her arms. She gazes out to her left, as if towards a person beyond the frame and she is dressed in a relatively simple blue and red dress, as a reference to the fact that she was not of noble descent. Her hair is styled in a simple ‘coazone’, which smooths her hair to her head and creates an elegant silhouette against the dark background. The ermine in her arms has several different interpretations, on the one hand thought to symbolise purity and also as a reference to Ludovico who was decorated with the Neapolitan Order of the Ermine in 1488 by the King of Naples. The pyramidic composition of Lady with an Ermine is reminiscent of many of Leonardo’s other works and demonstrates his interest in portraying movement. Lady with an Ermine is also an excellent example of Leonardo’s prowess in depicting the human form, especially evident in the rendering of her hand, where every detail is defined and accurate. 

View works by artists Inspired by da Vinci on Singulart.

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