The Interesting Origin Of Lady With An Ermine

Lady with an Ermine is a portrait artwork belonging to Leonardo da Vinci. It got painted on a Walnut Panel around 1489-1491. A mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Ceilia Gallerani is the focal point of painting. Leonardo was the court painter at the time of its completion.

It is one of his only best-preserved female portraits, the others being Ginevra de’ Benci, La Belle Ferronnière, and the Mona Lisa.

Origin

Although Leonardo produced a painting of Cecilia Gallerani until the early twentieth century, it was unknown to scholars. Prince Adam George Czartoryski, the son of Izabela Czartoryska Flemming and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, bought the painting in Italy in 1798. They added it to the Czartoryski family treasures in Pulawy in 1800. 

The inscription on the painting’s top-left corner was most likely placed by a restorer shortly after it arrived in Poland and before the background got overpainted.

 The picture had never got discussed in the literature, and no evidence of a former owner exists. However, Czartoryski was aware belonged to Leonardo. The Belle Ferronière is a Leonardo portrait in the Louvre with a striking likeness to the sitter. First, Czartoryski thought they were the same person. During the nineteenth century, the artwork got famous and widely shown. In the November Uprising in 1830, Princess Czartoryska, at 84, rescued it from an invading Russian army, hid it, and transferred it 100 miles south to the Czartoryski palace in Sieniawa. It got relocated to the Hôtel Lambert, the Czartoryski refugee residence in Paris. 

In 1869, the family returned to Poland, where they settled. The family brought the picture to Kraków in 1876. Amid the chaotic aftermath of the German conquest of Paris in 1871 and the Commune, the museum opened in 1878. The picture was relocated to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden for safekeeping. During World War I, before being returned to Kraków in 1920.

It was transported to Sieniawa again in 1939, anticipating the German annexation of Poland. However, got discovered and confiscated by the Nazis and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. The artwork was seen by Hans Frank, the Governor-General of Poland, in 1940. He ordered it to give it back to Kraków, where it hung in his Wawel Castle suite of offices. It was moved to a Breslau storage with other stolen paintings in 1941. It was returned to Kraków in 1943 and displayed at Wawel Castle. It got recovered by Allied troops in Frank’s country residence in Schliersee, Bavaria, towards the end of WWII and restored to Poland in 1946.

The Czartoryski Museum in Kraków put it on display once more. The work toured the world more than any other Leonardo painting during the mid-late twentieth century. It includes the exhibitions in Warsaw (1952), Moscow (1972), Washington, D.C. (1991/92), Malmö (1993/94), Rome/Milan (1998), and Florence (2001/1999). The piece was on exhibit at the Czartoryski Museum until it was closed in 2010 for repairs. It was on display at the National Museum in Kraków outside the Old Town, from May 2017 until April 2019. It was restored to the Czartoryski Museum on December 19, 2019, for the museum’s reopening. 

Description

Composition

Oils were utilized to paint The Lady with an Ermine on a small walnut wood panel measuring 54 by 39 cm (21 x 15 in).  Oil paint was relatively new to Italy at that time, having arrived in the 1470s. Moreover, walnut was a wood prized by Leonardo but not generally used by other Lombard artists.

The wood is thin, perhaps 4–5 millimeters thick (0.16–0.20 in). Moreover, it is most likely from the same tree as the wood used in his later painting, La Belle Ferronnière.  The piece exists prepared with a layer of white gesso and a layer of brownish underpaint. The picture represents a half-height woman looking left, her face at a three-quarter angle to her right.

The lady

Cecilia Gallerani, Leonardo’s employer Ludovico Sforza’s mistress, has been identified with considerable certainty to the subject. Her glance exists focused toward a “third person” beyond the picture’s frame, rather than straight ahead or the viewer.  Gallerani is holding an ermine, a little white-coated stoat. Her attire is relatively plain, indicating that she is not of noble birth or descent. The hairstyle, known as a coazone, neatly restricts her hair to her head, with two bands on either side of her face bound and a long plait at the rear. A beautiful gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over keep her hair in place.

The composition is a pyramidic spiral sitter who got caught moving to her left, like in many of Leonardo’s works. It illustrates Leonardo’s lifelong obsession with the dynamics of movement. One of his numerous creations was the three-quarter profile portrait. Bernardo Bellincioni, Il Moro’s court poet, was the first to suggest that Cecilia was poised as if listening to an invisible speaker. The work demonstrates Leonardo’s mastery of the human form. Cecilia’s delicate hands are outstretched, painted, down to the contours of her fingernails. The wrinkles around her knuckles and the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.

The Ermine

Cecilia is carrying an ermine, a type of animal. Certain people think it is too big to have been an ermine. However, its size got appreciated by the fact that it is symbolic. Its significance exists explained in a variety of ways, and they are frequently combined. The ermine was a traditional symbol of purity and moderation in its winter coat. The belief is that it would die rather than stain its white fur.

An ermine represents these principles by submitting itself to a hunter. The idea gained more strength after drawing by Leonardo in pen and ink from around 1490. It exists displayed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The ermine had a personal meaning for Ludovico Sforza.  He would wear his personalized badge after being awarded a member of the Order of the Ermine by Ferdinand in 1488. The ermine might have a play on Cecilia’s surname: Galê is the Ancient Greek word for ermine or other weasel-like animals.

 The ermine takes on the meaning of an ermine or weasel in classical literature, according to Krystyna Moczulska, where it is related to pregnancy, sometimes as a protecting animal for pregnant women. Around the time, a rumor made people believe that Cecilia was pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate child.

Commission

Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s boss, Ludovico Sforza, has been positively confirmed as the sitter.

Gallerani never belonged to a small wealthy family. Her father worked at the Duke court. She was about sixteen years old at the time of the portrait and was known for her beauty, scholarship, and poetry.

 She married a young Visconti nobleman when she was six years old. However, in 1487 she asked for the marriage to be annulled for unknown reasons, and her request got granted. Even after his eleven-year marriage to Beatrice d’Este, she became the Duke’s mistress and bore him a son.

Bottom Line

Scholars did not widely acknowledge the work of Leonardo until the twentieth century. The attribution is on Leonardo’s chiaroscuro style, detailed, and contemplative tone.

The article makes sure to provide you all the information regarding this unique painting.

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