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Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with her six children

Painting, 1605, 99×133.5 cm

Description of the artwork «Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with her six children»

Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with Her Six Children is an intimate family portrait painted by Lavinia Fontana in Rome at the very beginning of the 17th century. It is one of her finest portraits and one of the few works known from this period of her career. The painting of Bianca degli Utili, wife of the nobleman Pierino Maselli, with six of her children, provides an invaluable insight into the fashion of the time.

The text of an epigraph on Bianca's tomb revealed that she was of Florentine origin, married the Roman Cavalier Pierino Maselli, and died in September 1605 at the age of 37 after giving birth to her nineteenth child. This terminus ante quem for the execution of the work means that there is a quite short window of around twelve months for the execution of the portrait as Lavinia was not documented in Rome until 28 April 1604. She is also known to have still been in Bologna on 19 February 1603.

The portrait is divided into two asymmetrical and contrasting sections. The three children to the left gaze out directly at the viewer; they appear still, well-behaved and sit attentively to the artist. Conversely, the three boys to the right of the composition are shown as rather more playful and animated. Two of them look at each other as opposed to the viewer, creating a less formal mood.

The portrait is remarkable for its meticulous attention to the detail, including Bianca's floral hairband, the embroidered costumes the textures shown. It can be compared to the earlier Portrait of a Noblewoman in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. The five boys wear outfits made from the same rich material while mother and daughter wear different, even more expensive dresses. The woman and the girl also wear the elaborate jewelry – the gold earrings and the pearls. While the cuffs of all the clothes differ slightly, all wear very similar sumptuous ruffs and particular attention has been paid to depicting the play of light and shadow on these.

Despite the elegance of the clothes and the formal setting, the portrait stands out for its sympathetic approach to the sitters and for the tender family context in which they are shown. Nearly all the figures are seen busying themselves by holding objects. The boy upper left is shown with a colorful bird tied to a little chain (the bird might be a goldfinch symbolizing the Passion of Christ, which allows us to assume that the child was destined for a spiritual career). His brother below him holds a plate of fruit, the second brother, upper right, holds a medallion with the figure of a knight, and the third one – a pen and inkpot. The objects probably allude to their future professions. To the right, the middle boy's hands cannot be seen but the movement of his body suggests that his hands are not idle.

The girl named Verginia holds her mother's forefinger in her right hand, and with her left hand tenderly plays with the paw of the little dog on Bianca's arm, which underlines her loyalty as a wife. Though Bianca is shown here with five of her sons, particular attention seems to be drawn to her daughter. She is the only child whom the mother is hugging and she is the only one to have her name inscribed above her head. It may well be that the portrait was painted specifically for her or in her honour, all the more so since we know that the painting remained until recently in the family of her immediate successors.

This important addition to a relatively mature Roman phase in Lavinia's career is a testament to her abilities as a portrait- and costume-painter. The details of the elaborate clothing and the varied psychological portrayal of so many characters is only matched by one of her masterpieces, The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Solomon, in the National Gallery of Dublin, Ireland.

In January 2012, the Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with Her Six Children was put up for Sotheby’s auction with an initial estimate of $ 200 - 300 thousand, and sold for $ 602.5 thousand.

Author: Vlad Maslov
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Mannerism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1605

Size: 99×133.5 cm

Artwork in selections: 10 selections

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