Rare and Significant Portrait by Lavinia Fontana Acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

May 1, 2024

Fontana Portrait Of Bianca Degli Utili Maselli And Her Children

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children, ca. 1604-5. Oil on canvas, 39 x 53 1/4 in. (99.06 x 135.255 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Margaret and William R. Hearst III, Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Dagmar Dolby, and The Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Endowment Income Fund in celebration of the Legion of Honor centenary, 2024.7. Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco



SAN FRANCISCO, May 1, 2024 — The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced today the acquisition of Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children–a rare and significant family portrait by Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552-1614). Fontana was among the greatest women artists in early modern Europe, renowned both for her exquisite descriptions of costumes and jewelry and for her sympathetic portrayals of women and children. The Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children exemplifies the artist’s skill at depicting elaborate attire as well as her keen understanding of her sitters. Having remained in private hands for over 400 years, the portrait goes on view today for the very first time at a public institution. It is the first work of art created by a woman before 1700 to join the collection housed at the Legion of Honor.

“Lavinia Fontana was one of the most compelling portraitists of her time, and we are delighted to add this extraordinary example of her work to our collection of Italian paintings” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We extend our gratitude to the patrons whose generosity has enabled us to make this transformative acquisition and to share this remarkable picture with visitors as we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Legion of Honor”

Fontana was born in Bologna. Italy and trained by her father, a former studio assistant to the Florentine Mannerist Giorgio Vasari. Her rise as an artist coincided with a period when elite women in Bologna had greater opportunities to participate in public life, including as patrons of charitable organizations and the arts. Such women became Fontana’s core clientele, and the artist’s exquisite attention to detail—most especially in sumptuous textiles and glittering jewelry—clearly endeared her to stylish sitters. Mother to 11 children, of whom only three would survive her, Fontana also painted juvenile subjects with particular tenderness and sensitivity.

“The Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children is an unusually spectacular work– winsome in subject, grand in scale, richly painted, and beautifully preserved,” observed Emily Beeny, Chief Curator of the Legion of Honor and Barbara A. Wolfe Curator-in-Charge of European Paintings, “It opens a window onto the life of a Roman noblewoman and her family, marked by both privilege and grief.”

Bianca degli Utili Maselli (1568-1605) bore 19 children before dying from complications of childbirth at the age of 37. In Fontana’s portrait, she appears with six of her children, likely the only six still living at the time: five sons and a daughter, the toddler clutching her mother’s forefinger. The grave frontal treatment of Maselli, flame haired and regal, and of her three children at left contrasts with the tender naturalism of her three sons at right, who jostle and squirm as children do. “The two halves of the composition seem to reflect a tension in Fontana’s style between the glacial elegance of the Florentine Mannerist tradition and the warmer-blooded pleasures of Bolognese naturalism,” Beeny added.

Per the painter’s chief expertise, the whole family is dressed in blinding splendor, with ruffs of costly handmade lace and garments cut from the richest of textiles. Gold glitters. Pearls gleam. A diamond winks from Maselli’s index finger, and protective bracelets of coral encircle little Verginia’s wrists. The mother and daughter wear gowns of crimson and deep blue brocade, whose bold patterns, picked out in precious, metal-wrapped threads, form a striking contrast to the boys’ ocher jerkins of cut velvet. Every sitter save one holds an accessory of some kind: a quill pen and ink well; a gold medallion; a songbird on a leash; a silver cup of figs; a faithful dog. These carried emblematic meanings, perhaps linked to the individual personalities and virtues of various family members: studiousness, sweetness, fidelity, and so on.

Fittingly enough for the image of one matriarch painted by another, the picture’s initial descent was matrilineal. Although the inscription along the top edge of the canvas identifies the family, the only sitter identified by her own inscription is Maselli’s young daughter: “Verginia.” Verginia Maselli survived into adulthood and in 1620 married Fausto Bartoli, to whom she bore three children. One was a daughter, Maria Felice, who married into the Marchetti family; the picture descended through the Marchettis for nearly four centuries. This extended, unbroken line of inheritance has helped protect the canvas and ensure its unusually fine condition.

Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children will be on view in the Legion of Honor’s Renaissance galleries alongside masterpieces by El Greco, Titian, Moroni, and Bronzino from May 1, 2024.

The acquisition of Fontana’s Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli and Her Children was made possible by generous support from Margaret and William R. Hearst III, the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Dagmar Dolby and the Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Endowment Income Fund in celebration of the Legion of Honor centennial. The painting was acquired through Ben Elwes Fine Art, London.

About Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was one of the leading artists of her age and among the most important female artists in early modern Europe. A celebrated portraitist and the recipient of major public commissions for altarpieces in her native Bologna, Rome, and as far away as Madrid, she was born in 1552 and trained with her father, Prospero, a minor Mannerist, in Bologna. She had already embarked on a promising career in portraiture by 1577, when she married Gian Paolo Zappi, a sometime studio assistant to her father. Most unusually for the period, their marriage contract stipulated that Fontana would continue to practice her profession unhindered by housekeeping duties. Over the next four decades, even as she bore 11 children, she would take on commissions of increasing importance, while Zappi gave up his own career to serve as her agent and help manage her thriving studio.

Fontana’s first documented public commission, in 1584, was for an Assumption of the Virgin (today in the municipal museum at Imola). Further paintings of grand scale swiftly followed: another Assumption of Virgin (today in the parish church at Pieve di Cento) a Consecration of the Virgin (at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles), and, perhaps her most famous picture today, the Reception of the Queen of Sheba by King Solomon (at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). Fontana’s thriving portraiture practice helped connect her to the families responsible for awarding such prestigious commissions and as due-dates for her many children approached, her work on large-scale projects alternated with smaller devotional pictures and portraits.

By the end of the 1590s, Fontana occupied an uncontested position as the leading portraitist of Bolognese noblewomen, but she evidently harbored larger ambitions. Having scored a resounding success with an altarpiece  for the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, in 1603 or early 1604 Lavinia relocated her household and studio to the Eternal City, where she would paint her most celebrated work: the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, for San Paolo fuori le Mura (destroyed in 1823 but known through an engraving by Jacques Callot). The contours of Fontana’s Roman career are not well understood, though she continued to paint portraits of women from leading Roman families. 

Visiting \ Legion of Honor

Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. The museum is open Tuesday–Sunday 9:30 am–5:15 pm, and offers free general admission to Bay Area residents every Saturday with generous underwriting by Diane B. Wilsey, and free admission to all every first Tuesday of the month. Go to famsf.org for more information.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024–25 The Fine Arts Museums’ rich collection of European paintings is presented throughout the Beaux-Arts architecture of the Legion of Honor’s galleries. The collection includes more than 800 masterpieces from the 14th to the early 20th centuries. The approximately 250 paintings on view present a survey of artistic accomplishments by Europe’s leading artists of their time, from Fra Angelico to Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Canaletto, and Claude Monet.

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