A 400-year-old painting by one of Europe’s first professional female artists, the 16th-century Italian painter Lavinia Fontana, has found a permanent home 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 just 30 paintings ever attributed to Fontana by historians.
The painting, Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (ca. 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 the early 20th century Australian philanthropist Alfred Felton.
Fontana, who was born in 1552 in Bologna, Italy, is widely known as the first woman to launch a professional painting career from an urban studio in Europe. She got her start producing small-scale devotional paintings, many of which feature historical female figures. She went on to take major commissions that further elevated her career, and later joined a prestigious painter’s guild 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 (ca. 1552–55). That work was acquired through the Felton Bequest for the NGV in 1961.
News of the acquisition comes as museums around the world move to remedy historical gaps in their permanent collections, which have left influential women artists disproportionately under-represented. Female Old Masters have become a relatively new area of focus, with institutions buying important works by artists such as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Sofonisba Anguissola, and more.
The director of the NGV, Tony Ellwood, said that the newly acquired work “speaks to [Fontana’s] prodigious talent,” since it was completed when the artist was in her early twenties. The addition of the painting to the collection marks one of several “key acquisitions in recent years that take important steps towards addressing historical gender imbalance.”