Angelica Kauffmann painted her “auto-biographical” self-portrait called The Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting while in Rome in 1794. The torn Angelica was encouraged to abandon her painting to pursue a career in music, a traditionally female environment. She ultimately chose to continue as a visual artist and set off for “the temple on the mountaintop” with a bit of encouragement from the Allegory of Painting.
Musical talent aside, Kauffmann’s keen interest in music was not uncommon. The upcoming exhibition Early Women Artists and Musicians, opening on March 8 at Ponte a Ema’s Oratorio di Santa Caterina delle Ruote as a partnership show between the Uffizi and the Municipality of Bagno a Ripoli, has spurred me to reflect on the fact that many female painters did indeed want music to be perceived as a crucial part of their creative identity. Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, took up a lute and painted herself as Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and later invited her younger colleague Arcangela Paladini to model as the saint for another of her works.
In many cases, there was a vested interest in a female artist’s desire to include musical references in her paintings. One reason is that, for hundreds of years, European women contracted advantageous marriage proposals thanks to carefully crafted art marketing, known as the pre-marriage portrait. Italy’s history abounds with women artists hired for this very purpose: immortalizing their female sitters as a very good catch. But what happened when the time came for women artists to paint their own pre-marriage portrait? Was “making themselves beautiful” the primary goal? Not usually. It was far more common for them to show themselves to be well versed in the secrets of the harpsichord and spinet! A musically inclined woman meant an educated woman and the presence of a musical instrument in a female self-portrait symbolized a well-rounded education, which also most certainly included reading, writing, arithmetic and sewing, as well as dancing and needlework—all taught rigorously within the home sphere.
Women artists with works in Florence, like Marietta Robusti and Sofonisba Anguissola, also used the “music muse” idea in their self-renditions, but Lavinia Fontana’s story is one of my favorites. Her earliest self-portrait, in storage at the Uffizi, was painted for her future father-in-law Severo Zappi. Fontana’s red dress “said it all” for viewers of her time: red was the color Bolognese noblewomen wore on their wedding day. Two other important “hidden messages” can be found in the background of this 1577 painting. Firstly, there’s a serious maidservant who is holding the artist’s sheet music. Art historians believe the servant’s presence was intended to boost Fontana’s social status figuratively, as the Zappi family was a notch above her own. Secondly, further in the background, there is an easel, which establishes her as a working artist. Incidentally, the painting did its job wonderfully and “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana” wed Gianpaolo Lappi, a minor painter who found his true vocation in caring for the couple’s 11 children, while Lavinia pursued her astoundingly successful career.
So, although photography was still a figment in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in some ways, “the art of image” was no less important than it is today. Using music as a way to boost one’s status and credibility? We know it worked for Lavinia.