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A portrait of Lavinia Fontana ends up in a museum collection after 400 years in private hands

A family portrait by the pioneering Italian Mannerist painter Lavinia Fontana has finally made it to an American institution. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco just announced it has been acquired Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and her children (c. 1604), made during Fontana’s enigmatic Rome period.

According to Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of Legion of Honor, the work will be visible to the public for the first time in four centuries. The work will hang “alongside masterpieces by El Greco, Titian, Moroni and Bronzino,” he noted via email, and “significantly expand the story visitors encounter in our Renaissance galleries.” The portrait is now the oldest work by a female artist in the museum, after the famous painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist Psyche says goodbye to her family (1791).

The museum has been trying for some time to add special paintings by women to the collection. “When you bring works of art attributed to women into a collection where the level of quality is already very high,” curator Emily Beeny mused on the phone, “it is important that those works are of an equivalent quality so that you don’t invite annoying people into comparison .”

Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. Photo: Steve Whittaker, ©FAMSF. Photo courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

London-based dealer Ben Elwes initially alerted Beeny that a small Fontana portrait of an individual sitter was available. She and her team were hoping for something more illustrious. “They knew about another photo that was in a private collection and not yet for sale,” Beny recalls. She viewed Maselli’s portrait, brought Campbell with her, and even sent the larger portrait back to their curators in San Francisco for review. Impressed, they asked for donations from several customers to finance the purchase. “We are not an institution with large existing dedicated funds for European paintings,” Beny noted.

Fontana made Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and her children at the height of her powers. She had already established herself as the favorite portraitist of the noblewomen of Bologna, for both her naturalism and her attention to adornment. Fontana’s move to Rome was in line with major religious assignments such as The Virgin appears to Saint Hyacinth (1599–1600) and The Martyrdom of St. Stephen (ca. 1607), an acclaimed masterpiece that survives only in copies. By the time she arrived in Rome, Fontana was a renowned talent, but little is known about her time there, although Beny knows someone is writing a dissertation on it.

The subject of the portrait, Bianca degli Utili Maselli, was in her mid-thirties when the work was painted; She is the wife of a nobleman and is surrounded by six of her children. She died in 1605 at the age of 37 while giving birth to her 19th child. Fontana, who gave birth to eleven children of her own, presented the children on Maselli’s left as good, and those on her right as naughty. Each subject is impeccably dressed and holds a treasure that speaks to their personality.

The only sitter identified with her own inscription on the portrait is Maselli’s youngest daughter Verginia, who inherited the work after her mother’s death. Verginia later married into the Marchetti family, who passed it down for four generations, which, as the museum noted, “helped protect the canvas and ensure its unusually good condition.” A long line of women has secured the inheritance.

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