Lady with an Ermine

Facts about Lady with an Ermine

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Dama con l'ermellino

Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Polish collections and one of four surviving female portraits painted by the master's hand. Commissioned by the Duke of Milan for his beloved woman, the mother of his son, it is full of allegories intended to show the affection linking the two people, but at the same time not to inform the public directly. Cecilia Gallerani was the owner of the painting until her death. However, fate had it later found its way to Poland.

Lady with an Ermine
The Lady with an Ermine is one of only four surviving portraits of women painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

The others are:

  • Portrait of Ginevra Benci - the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the United States, on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC
  • La Belle Ferroniere - depicting Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, painting on display at the Louvre
  • Mona Lisa - depicting Lise Gherardini, wife of Francesco Gioconda, on display at the Louvre
The painting was painted around 1489 -1491.

It is executed in oil with tempera on a walnut wood board measuring 54.7 x 40.3 cm. The wood is thin, about 4-5 mm thick, and probably comes from the same tree used by the artist for his later portrait, La Belle Ferroniere.

Leonardo's oil paint was not popular in Italy then, having only been introduced in the 1870s.

While walnut was Leonardo's favorite wood, other painters did not commonly use it.

This portrait depicts Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (Ludovico il Moro, Maur).

Cecilia is shown from the waist up. Her body turned gently to the right. Her face, however, turns in profile, three-quarters to the left.

The pose of the figure corresponds with the expression of the portrayed face.

The girl is looking resolutely to the right, at a specific, unknown point. The visible right corner of her mouth gives the impression of a slight smile. The model's shoulders are lowered. The left one, bent at the elbow, is placed horizontally along the waist. On it is stretched the body of a white ermine, whose neck and head are raised. The ermine is looking in the same direction as Cecilia. The girl's right-hand fingers touch the animal's fur at the neck, giving the impression of gentle stroking.

Leonardo's compositional novelty is the turning of the model's head in the opposite direction from that in which her body is directed.

The artist thus achieves the effect of movement and dynamism. Cecilia's subtle facial expressions and the ermine's behavior further add "truth" and "life" to the picture. The portrait reveals the model's personality and fulfills one of the fundamental aspirations of artists of the time - the desire to reproduce reality as closely as possible through art.

Leonardo da Vinci was involved in a theoretical dispute with the creators of poetry over which art better-reflected nature.

Leonardo, siding with painting, of course, claimed that a painting, like a poetic work, could express the "thought, the movement of the mind" of a person. It seems that with his portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, he proved the superiority of the art of painting in its ability to reflect nature, including in this art the possibility of showing the character of the person portrayed.

Da Vinci placed an ermine in the portrait alongside Cecilia, which served as an allegory of purity, innocence, and restraint in Renaissance art.

The ermine was also associated with chivalric culture and was sometimes depicted in medals. The image of the ermine was also placed on items of wedding equipment for Italian brides, suggesting that the portrait may have been part of her betrothal equipment (the period of the painting's creation is connected with the wedding of Cecilia to the Duke of Bergamo).

The word for "ermine" in Greek is "galee" and suggests a similarity in sound with "Gallerani."

This association allowed the identification of the portrayed woman with Cecilia Gallerani - for centuries, the painting was known by various names, and the model remained anonymous or was associated with Ludovico Sforza's later sweetheart. Perhaps this was a deliberate effort by the master to facilitate identification.

From 1488, Ludovico Sforza was nicknamed "Elmerino," or "ermine," which was associated with awarding the order of ermine by the King of Naples.

As Cecilia was Ludovico's mistress, and he was about to marry another, perhaps Leonardo wanted to show the lovers in a loving embrace. Cecilia, moreover, was expecting Ludovic's child, so the ermine on the model's bosom served as an allegory of motherhood (according to ancient tradition, the ermine facilitated childbirth).

Also noteworthy in the painting is Cecilia's attire.

She is dressed in a heavy gown of warm, deep red, with a delicate blue cloak over her left shoulder, lined with gold silk. Her outfit is complemented by sparing black ornaments. Cecilia is carefully, smoothly combed. The hairstyle and clothing represent Spanish fashion, which became popular in Milan thanks to Beatrice d'Este.

Leonardo da Vinci spent seventeen years at the Milanese court of Ludovico Sforza.

During this time, he created two well-known painterly portraits of women. In both cases, he immortalized Ludovico's sweethearts.

When he portrayed Cecilia Gallerani, she was about sixteen years old at the time and had joined the ranks of court artists.

She was an educated person, was fluent in Latin, knew music, and created poetry. Moreover, she enjoyed the particular favor of Ludovic. The ruler, who had been planning his wedding to the Princess of Ferrara, Beatrice d'Este, for a long time, postponed it. Finally, the wedding took place in January 1491, and in May of the same year, Cecilia gave birth to Ludovic, a son named Cesario.

The boy was the ruler's first son and was given his surname.

The d'Este family strongly opposed Ludovic's union with Cecilia. Cecilia left the court three months after Ludovic's marriage to Beatrice and moved to a palace in the city. She also soon received a landed estate with a castle in Saronno to Sforza. In July 1492, she married Duke Ludovico Bergamini. She ran an open house where she hosted scholars and artists. It was one of the first intellectual salons in Europe.

The painting "Lady with an Ermine" remained in Cecilia's hands until she died in 1536.

That it was in her possession is attested to by Cecilia's correspondence with the Marquise of Mantua, Isabella d'Este, who in a letter from 1498 asks to borrow the painting from her.

The painting made its way to Poland in 1788.

It was purchased from an unknown dealer by Prince Adam Czartoryski, who was looking for exhibits in Italy for the art collection of his mother, Isabella Czartoryska. The duchess wanted to open a museum at the Czartoryski estate in Pulawy. The painting was placed in the Gothic House.

During the November Uprising, the painting was taken to Paris.

At the end of the 19th century, around 1880, it was brought to Krakow and placed in the Czartoryski Museum, which was being created there.

In 1939, the Lady with an Ermine was looted by the German occupiers.

At first, Hans Frank decorated the walls of his Wawel residence with it, and later the painting was taken to Germany.

In 1946, Poland recovered the painting from the Germans, bringing it back to Krakow.

On December 29, 2016, the Princes Czartoryski Foundation sold the entire collection, including the Potret of the Lady with an Ermine, and real estate in Krakow to the Treasury for €100 million.

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