Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn”

Aug 6, 2015

Cincinnati Art Museum \ October 3, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Legion of Honor \ January 9 – April 10, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (August 7, 2015)—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Cincinnati Art Museum are pleased to announce Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn.” This focused exhibition features one of Raphael’s most beguiling and enigmatic paintings. The masterpiece, presented in the United States for the first time, will be lent by the Galleria Borghese in Rome, where it was first recorded in the collection in 1682.

“Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn is a stunning masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance. When it arrives in San Francisco for the first time, we will greet it with new scholarship as well as a celebration fitting for the blond beauty and her mysterious unicorn,” says Dr. Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. She is the organizing curator of the exhibition and the editor of the accompanying catalogue. Dr. Bell was previously a curator of European paintings, drawings and sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“The Cincinnati Art Museum is excited and honored to showcase this magnificent work in its U.S. debut. We are grateful to the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture for the partnership that brings this important and highly esteemed treasure to Cincinnati,” said Cameron Kitchin, the Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. “The painting is revelatory when encountered in person, and we look forward to sharing it with our visitors.”

Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn (ca. 1505–1506) features an unidentified blond-haired sitter and epitomizes the beauty of Raphael’s female portraits during his Florentine period. The exhibition will explore the possible identity of this subject, as well as the painting’s distinct iconography, including the unicorn she holds in her lap. Scholars believe that the painting was commissioned to celebrate a wedding, and the unicorn, a conventional symbol of chastity, may offer clues to her familial lineage.

The exhibition further highlights the stylistic relationships between this masterpiece and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s canonical work, painted in Florence in the early years of the 16th century, had a great impact on the younger Raphael, who also practiced in the city during this period. Raphael’s sophisticated adaptation of Leonardo’s innovations in portrait compositions resulted in Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, a painting that hints at the Mona Lisa with its half-length format, its sitter with hands folded in her lap, and its setting before a distant landscape. Visitors will be able to explore Raphael’s painting in detail and get a glimpse into its intriguing history.

About the Artist
Painter, draftsman and architect Raphael (1483–1520) was one of the most famous artists working in Italy during the period from 1500 to 1520, often identified as the High Renaissance. His paintings are noteworthy for their great beauty and harmony, epitomizing the Renaissance virtues of balance and ideal form. His later production exhibits an interest in expressing movement and emotion through narratives. He is best known for religious subjects, portraits, and historical scenes. \ @LegionofHonor

Visiting \ Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121

Open 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays; open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Entry to this exhibition is included with general admission to the museum. Information on purchasing tickets, groups of 15 or more, & membership.

Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn,” includes a foreword and accompanying material by Dr. Esther Bell, and two essays by leading specialists in Renaissance art, Linda Wolk-Simon and Mary Shay-Millea. The essays explore the stylistic relationship between this masterpiece and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the link to Petrarch’s poetry and popular notions of beauty in Renaissance art. They examine attributions and the painting’s distinct iconography, and why, in place of the usual lapdog, the woman holds a unicorn.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Cincinnati Art Museum in collaboration with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture and the Galleria Borghese. The Legion of Honor presentation is made possible by a lead sponsorship from the Frances K. and Charles D. Field Foundation, in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Field.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.

The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion, itself a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The museum opened in 1924 in the Beaux Arts–style building designed by George Applegarth on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition and was originally known as the Memorial Museum. Thirty years later, it was renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, a longtime champion of the museum. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, opened in October 2005. It showcases the institution’s significant collections of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

About the Cincinnati Art Museum
The Cincinnati Art Museum is supported by the generosity of individuals and businesses that give annually to ArtsWave. The Ohio Arts Council helps fund the Cincinnati Art Museum with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans. The Cincinnati Art Museum gratefully acknowledges operating support from the City of Cincinnati, as well as our members. For more information, visit

Media Contacts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Erin Garcia \ \ 415.750.8904

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Miriam Newcomer \ \ 415.750.3554

Cincinnati Art Museum
Jill Dunne \ \ 513.639.2954