This beautiful and previously unpublished portrait of an aristocratic lady is a new addition to the oeuvre of the Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana, whose attribution has been confirmed by Maria Teresa Cantaro (certificate dated February 2006). Following Fontana's training as a history painter in the studio of her father, she executed numerous altarpieces as well as mythological subjects, yet it is for her many portraits of flamboyantly-dressed aristocratic sitters, painted from the late 1570s onwards, that she is most celebrated today. She seems to have been particularly drawn to her female sitters, revelling in the intricacies of the ornate costumes and jewellery that adorned them.
The identity of the present sitter is unknown, but her highly fashionable and richly embroidered dress, high ruff collar with delicate lacework and elaborate jewelled headdress leave no doubt that she was a person of considerable wealth and importance. As with many of Fontana's portraits the lady is accompanied by a small dog, symbolic of fidelity and alluding to the married status of the sitter. The present work probably dates from the 1590s and can be compared with Portrait of a noblewoman from the Ruini Household with a dog, in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, which is signed and dated 1593, and Portrait of a woman with a small dog, datable to 1597-8, in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. In these works Fontana consciously adapts her Mannerist style, incorporating a greater sense of realism and a simplified spatial setting in return for a more intense psychological study of the sitter that shows the increasing influence of the Carracci on her work.