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)

Learn more about Fontana’s painting Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani: The Walters Art Gallery

Recent and upcoming exhibitions featuring Lavinia Fontana:

Ingenious Women: Women Artists and their Companions at Kunstmuseum Basel from March 2–June 30, 2024. The exhibition was previously hosted (October 14, 2023–January 28, 2024) at Bucerius Kunstforum in Hamburg.

Maestras: Women Artists at Arp Museum from February 25–June 16, 2024. The exhibition was previously hosted (October 31, 2023–February 4, 2024) at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400–1800 at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 30–July 1, 2024. The show was on previously (October 1, 2023–January 7, 2024) at the Baltimore Museum of Art

In May 2023 Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker opened at the National Gallery of Ireland. Exploring the artist’s extraordinary life through her paintings and drawings, it is the first monographic exhibition of Fontana’s work in over two decades.

The Wadsworth Atheneum and the Detroit Institute of Arts collaborated in 2021–22 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 was to introduce to the public a “diverse and dynamic” group of female Old Masters, including not only Fontana but also court artist Sofonisba Anguissola, printer and painter Elisabetta Sirani, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Giovanna Garzoni, and other talented, but now virtually unknown, women artists. The show ran in Hartford from September 30, 2021 to January 9, 2022. It opens in Detroit on February 6, 2022. Read the Art Herstory review of the Hartford iteration of the exhibition here.

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, Trailblazer, Rule Breaker, by Aoife Brady, with contributions from Babette Bohn and Jonquil O’Reilly (National Gallery of Ireland, 2023)

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:

Stitching for Virtue: Lavinia Fontana, Elisabetta Sirani, and Textiles in Early Modern Bologna, by Dr. Patricia Rocco

The Restoration of Royalty: Lavinia Fontana’s Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, by Dr. Aoife Brady

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 >




Artemisia Gentileschi

Maria Schalcken

Judith Leyster

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