Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a Tuscan notary and was brought up in his pattern grandfather's house. He was trained by Andrea del Verrocchio, an extremely accomplished sculptor and painter. Leonardo was, undoubtedly, a genius - a man of formidable intelligence and abilities. Sadly, his inquiring mind sidetracked him on to so many different projects that he completed very few. Despite this, his known works were immensely influential throughout Europe and he was recognized as a great talent in his own time.
Of relevance to a discussion about Portrait of a Young Woman with an Ermine, painted around 1492, is the earlier portrait of Ginevra die Benci (c.1476) and the later Mona Lisa (c.1502). The former shows how Leonardo developed his portrait style, while the latter shows how he continued to develop it, which informs our understanding of this painting. All three demonstrate our interest in how character, thoughts, and feelings are revealed by pose and facial expression - the latter responding to the format. Thus, in the earlier painting, he indicated Ginevra's shrewd character by firm chin and tight lips.
|Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). c. 1492. Leonardo da Vinci.|
|Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. 1474-1478. Leonardo da Vinci.|
| La Joconde|
Mona Lisa. between and Leonardo da Vinci.
The subject here is probably the 17-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, a lady-in-waiting at the Milanese court and the mistress of Ludovico Sforza ("il Moro"), Duke of Milan, ruthless prince and diplomatist and a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists. There ar several suggestions for the symbolism of the ermine - one is that is signals her chastity, though since she gave birth to Ludovico's illegitimate child in the same year that he married Beatrice d"Este, this would seem ironic. Another is that it is a pun on her name - which in Greek means "ermine." A third suggestion is that Ludovico's nickname was Ermellino or ermine, which was his heraldic animal. (Certainly in the Ginevra die Benci, Leonardo indicated the sitter's name with a pun - the juniper bush behind her head - the Italian for juniper is ginepro.) Leonardo painted Cecilia's portrait during his first visit to Milan (1483-99), where he had traveled in the hope of securing the Duke's patronage.
Fact: The painting ha sheen in Krakow Poland, for 120 years and has left the city three times: during WWI it was transferred to Dresden by Prince Czartoryski for safekeeping; in WWII plundered by the Nazis; an din 1992 exhibited in New York.
The ermine is a symbol of purity - th elegnd is that it died it its whiteness became soiled. It serves as an allusion to Cecilia's virtue and chastity.
Women's hands were usually represented with fullness and grace but here we see the results of Leonardo's anatomical exploration of muscle and bone.
The white ermine that Cecilia is holding has been enlarged in order to balance the composition.
The light irradiates her face with its wonderful complexion and suggestion of a smile.
Her face is exquisitely modeled in pale flesh tones with a faint blush of pink in her cheeks - the smooth, hard finish, somewhat reminiscent of Flemish painting.
Leonardo developed the softly shadowed style of pairing with an emphasis on tonal modeling rather than on bright colors. Over his career he reduced his color range and tended and tended to use dark, smoky effects.
Despite some overpainting of the background, which was originally gray, the portrait is a harmonious blend of light and shade, line an dolor. It is diffused with a warm chromatic range, apart from the gray on her left shoulder, which is highlighted. Thus her left side is well defined while her right mergers into the shadows. The gray serves to emphasize the claw-shaped slash of red on her left sleet, which in turn is linked to the ermine and her right hand. The warm, mellow brown of her hair and eyes balances the colors of her right sleeve. For her dress and sleeves, shape is indicated by subtle transitions of blend colors within broad, faint contour lines - a technique known as sfumato.
Chiasquro is another technique that Leonardo developed, where shadow and light are used to model form. Cecilia's hand is not only superbly drawn, but also beautifully modeled in light and shade. Note how light is reflected by the shine on her nails.
Light and shadow model the ermine's body, whose rear seems to dissolve into Cecilia's arm. The looser brushstrokes and mellow colors throw into relief the clarity of her hand and the animal's head.
While in Milan, Leonardo had studied the effect of light falling on an object in the shade and noted how this resulted in a lack of precision. To replicated this in paint he developed the sfumato technique of blurred outlines and tonal modeling. Such suggestive representation enabled enabled his to extend his range of human expression by engaging psychologically with the viewer. By leaving something to the imagination, the viewers are required to make their own interpretation. It is this that makes his work so fascinating and enigmatic. He enhances this by applying another observation from nature - two sides of the face do not match. Thus Cecilia's left eye is smaller that the right, while the left corner of her mouth is turned up slightly more.