Lavinia Fontana

The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria

  • Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614)
  • Oil on canvas, 43 × 34 3/4 in. (109.22 × 88.27 cm)
  • 1581
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)



The Artist

A Mannerist painter from Bologna, Italy, Fontana lays claim to a number of “firsts.” She is credited with being the first professional female artist. She was the first woman artist to paint female nudes, and possibly the first female to use live nude female models. She was the primary breadwinner for herself, her husband (also an artist) and their eleven children. She painted portraits, often of women, and also religious and mythological scenes. Fontana was elected into the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, where she and her family had moved at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII. She received numerous honors in her lifetime. As just one example, in 1611 sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni cast a bronze portrait medallion of this artist!

Learn more about Fontana’s painting The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Recent and upcoming exhibitions featuring Lavinia Fontana:

The Wadsworth Atheneum and the Detroit Institute of Arts are collaborating to present By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800. The show capitalizes on the strong presence of Italian Renaissance and Baroque women artists in American and European collections. The organizers’ intent is to introduce to the public a “diverse and dynamic” group of female Old Masters, including not only Fontana but also Artemisia Gentileschi, court artist Sofonisba Anguissola, printer and painter Elisabetta Sirani, and other talented, but now virtually unknown, women artists. Because of the pandemic, the exhibition has been postponed; dates are tentative, but it is likely to open in Hartford on September 30, 2021; and in Detroit on February 6, 2022. 

At Milan’s Palazzo Reale in Spring 2021, the exhibition Le Signore dell’Arte. Storie di donne tra ’500 e ’600 celebrated the art and the extraordinary lives of 34 different women artists, including Lavinia Fontana, as well as Elisabetta SiraniGiovanna Garzoni, Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Ginevra Cantofoli, Fede Galizia, and more. It showcased some 150 paintings from no fewer than 67 different lenders, including many Italian museums; the Musée des Beaux Arts in Marseille; and Muzeum Narodowe in Poznan, Poland.

In celebration of its 200th anniversary, Madrid’s Prado museum put on an exhibition of works by two Renaissance women artists, Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. The exhibition ran from October 2019 until early February 2020. Exhibition

Books about Lavinia Fontana


Lavinia Fontana’s Mythological Paintings: Art, Beauty and Wisdom, by Liana De Girolami Cheney (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020)

A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana (exhibition catalog, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2019)

Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna, by Caroline P. Murphy (Yale University Press, 2003)



The Vanishing Point, by Louise Hawes (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2004)


Learn more online about Lavinia Fontana at:

The Art Herstory blog:

Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani at the Smith College Art Museum, by Dr. Danielle Carrabino

Lavinia Fontana: Italy’s First Female Professional Artist, by Liz Lev

Renaissance Women Painting Themselves, by Katherine McIver

A Tale of Two Women Painters, by Natasha Moura


Smith College Art Museum: Explore >

National Museum of Women in the Arts: Explore >

Bridgeman Blog: Explore >

Daily Art Magazine article: Explore >





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