Lavinia Fontana in not just considered the first woman in Western art history to be a professional artist. The 16th-century Italian painter was also a dab hand at depicting man’s and woman’s best friend, showing dogs in all their glory. A number of paintings in the exhibition Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin (until 27 August) have canines as a centrepiece.
Spaniels pop up in Fontana’s art, denoting prestige and status. “The smaller dogs are similar to Paris Hilton’s chihuahuas; it really is the same idea. They were pure accessories,” says the exhibition curator Aoife Brady. “They were extraordinarily expensive and the smaller they were, the more expensive they became. They often wore their own jewellery; two dogs [featured in the exhibition] are shown wearing earrings; such items are recorded in inventories of household goods in the 16th century.”
Portrait of Isabella Ruini (1593), shows a spaniel sporting an eye-popping earring, looking dolefully at its mistress. The noblewoman’s “meticulously rendered gold jewellery” matches the animal’s equally opulent jewels, creating the impression of kindred spirits. “We have another image of a spaniel [in the work Portrait of a Young Girl of the Gonzaga Family, late 1570s]; this is a very obvious reference to femininity,” Brady adds. The leaping dog, keen to grab a treat, offsets the starchy formality of the young, buttoned-up sitter.
This playful element also underpins Portrait of an Adolescent Boy by a Desk, with a Dog (around 1585-90).“There is a kind of beagle shown here. In this context, I think this is a representation of departure from childhood to adulthood. Here is a young man about to be catapulted into the professional world. The little dog is vying for his attention but he’s not getting a reaction from his owner,” Brady says.
The artist also brings to the fore a female dog in another work,The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1599), a vast, complex image depicting members of a 16th-century Italian court. “This can be identified as a kind of mastiff that was frequently seen in the Italian court. They were a kind of hunting dog. Not only is she female but Fontana’s made sure that we know it is female [its teats are visible], this kind of detail was very rarely included.” The solemn, stately creature softens an otherwise intimidating tableau.
The charm of the canine representations comes from the unique characteristics bestowed by Fontana. “The dogs are all different. We know for example that Fontana borrowed items such as jewellery from her clients and brought them back to the studio so that she could accurately render them. People were keen that she represent their belongings properly; in the same way, they would have wanted their dogs to be properly represented too,” Brady says.
“The dogs were constant as they are linked directly to the people she was painting. They were total status symbols. I’ve done a technical study of Fontana’s paintings and she leaves space in reserve, these blank areas, where she inserts the dogs in last. They are key players in the compositions,” she concludes.