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La Belle Ferronnière can be considered one of Leonardo da Vinci's most accomplished portraits and was completed in around 1490-1495. It resides today within the Louvre in the French capital, Paris.
This beautifully crafted portrait is today named after the small item of headwear worn by the subject, namely a "Ferronnière". However, for many centuries it was known instead as Portrait of an Unknown Woman, and there was also fierce debate over whether it had even come from the great master's hand at all. Careful research into the piece has put those theories to bed, and most now accept it as having been from Leonardo da Vinci himself. Much of the evidence to lead to this conclusion was in the technical brilliance of the piece, and its similarities with a number of famous Da Vinci paintings from around that same period. Whilst this debate has drifted away, the new focus is regards the identity of the model herself.
A number of mistresses have been connected to this painting, and a series of the artist's drawings have also been put forward as potential preparatory studies. No conclusions have ever been drawn, and this mystery appears unlikely to ever be solved now. We can at least appreciate that this is indeed a Da Vinci work, thanks to the similarity of walnut wood used for it, which appears again elsewhere in his career. There is also a level of technical brilliance displayed here which essentially rules out all of his followers and related artists from that period. There are layers of paint beautifully fused together in a manner which makes the overall look near lifelike, with a use of subtle variations which merge together when viewed by the human eye.
Besides the clear innovations of Da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière also displays influences from Northern Italian art of that period, such as in how the viewer and model are separated by a stone ledge. The angles of the model's posture and her glance towards us is also in line with his experiences in and around Milan. The artist would reside within this city between the years of 1482 and 1499, placing it in a pivotal period of his lifetime, taking him from a budding young apprentice to a fully evolved painter by the time that he completed the likes of The Last Supper. By the early 1490s he had already perfected his skills of portraiture and much of that ability is displayed here within La Belle Ferronnière.
Within this article we examine La Belle Ferronnière in great depth, tracking its path up to the present day. We compare it with Da Vinci's oeuvre, and also highlight the stylistic elements which make it likely to have been from his hand. We also touch on the genres in which he was working throughout the 1490s, where secular work replaced religious themes, up until he switched to The Last Supper. Many of the artist's qualities can be found within La Belle Ferronnière, and by this point he was approaching his peak as an artist, having left his apprenticeship several decades earlier and used the years that had passed since to forge his own artistic path, for which we always continue to remain so grateful today.
Table of Contents
- Portrait Model
- Size and Medium
- Related Paintings
- Large Image
By the 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci was fully established as a professional artist. He was approaching his forties and had come out of the shadow of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, which showed in the work that he was producing. Having initally specialised in religious themes, Da Vinci was now providing private individuals with secular portraits and was entirely focused on that genre at the time that he produced La Belle Ferronnière. We see many of the innovations of earlier portraits appearing within this masterful piece, and they would continue on into later decades, such as with the iconic Mona Lisa. As with much of his career, there remains some controversies around this piece, such as the identity of the model, and for some time even the attribution of the painting itself. In the modern era, however, it does seem to have been generally accepted by most that this was indeed a work from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci.
This simple composition features a young woman with delicate, feminine features considered fashionably pretty for that period. She is positioned sideways to the viewer, but with her head turned towards us. She wears a smart reddish brown dress with flourishes of detail, such as tied ribbons around her shoulders and embroidered patterns across her neckline. There is also some jewellery around her neck and across her forehead which add some aesthetic interest to the piece, with the background left entirely black. A simple stone ledge (parapet) is included at the foot of the painting, giving the impression that she is on a balcony or perhaps in an outdoor room. This style of separating the viewer from the portrait figure was common within North Italian art during this period. Leonardo da Vinci experimented with different backgrounds in his portraits, sometimes choosing deep landscapes, whilst on other occasions, such as this, leaving that part of the scene entirely devoid of detail.
The female figure within La Belle Ferronnière has pursed lips with a serious expression, and this look was repeated many times over by Da Vinci across his career. The ambiguous nature of this expression has resulted in academics spending the last few centuries debating on the precise mood and atmosphere of his portraits. Some have even appended symbolism to the look given to many of Da Vinci's models, and most will be familiar with the particular smile of the Mona Lisa which arrived a few years later.
The term "Ferronnière", given to the title of the painting, may refer to the jewellery worn by the model across her forehead, although it may also have been related to the identity of the model, as Madame Le Féron, a reputed mistress of Francis I of France. The present owners of the painting have deemed the former explanation to be more likely, although the painting was not known as La Belle Ferronnière until the 18th century.
Identity of the Female Figure
In terms of the identity of the model for this painting, many theories have been put forward over the centuries that have passed since the artwork was first finished. Besides Madame Le Féron, others to have been suggested include Cecilia Gallerani, one of the mistresses of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who also appeared in Lady with an Ermine, though this may simply have been due to people confusing the two paintings. Indeed, for many years La Belle Ferronnière was actually known under the alternative title of Portrait of an Unknown Woman. Beatrice d'Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza, has also recently been put forward as the likely model, in part due to her appearance in a number of the artist's drawings, whilst others have suggested it to be Lucrezia Crivelli, who was another of Ludovico Sforza's many mistresses.
This painting is generally regarded today as having been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. For many years other names have been put forward instead, such as Bernardino de' Conti and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, with some academics still believing that perhaps La Belle Ferronnière was in fact produced by a member of the artist's workshop or elsewhere in the city of Milan. A number of drawings from Leonardo da Vinci's career bear some similarities with this portrait, and have been put forward as possible preparation pieces for this oil work, though nothing in that regard has ever been confirmed. It is also important to remember that the overall style and layout of this portrait is entirely in keeping with the approach taken by many North Italian artists during the late 15th century, though some of the more skilled, intricate touches do bear the hallmarks of Da Vinci himself.
Size and Medium
La Belle Ferronnière is sized at 62 cm × 44 cm (24 in × 17 in) and was produced using oil on a panel of walnut wood. This portrait remains amongst Leonardo da Vinci's smallest portraits. Researchers believe that the same tree was used for Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani too and these small sizes meant that it was not necessary for the artist to glue panels together, as found with some of his larger pieces. In using the same tree for these two paintings, it becomes much easier to confidently place La Belle Ferronnière just prior to the year 1500, which came soon after a number of other small portraits of secular figures. It also makes it easier to attribute the piece directly to Leonardo da Vinci, rather than one of his studio assistants, as there has been some confusion in that regard on a number of other artworks.
La Belle Ferronnière, also sometimes known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman, is loosely dated at around circa 1490-1495. It was the use of walnut wood which connected this piece to a number of other artworks from this same period, though other clues also strengthened this belief. For example, Da Vinci's other paintings leading up to this point were single portraits of women, just as with this one, and so the genre and composition would fit the period of 1490-1495. Portrait of a Musician, Lady with an Ermine and Litta Madonna were the specific contributions from 1485-1490 and so La Belle Ferronnière could conveivably have just been a continuation of this devotion to portraiture. Da Vinci would then move into other genres soon afterwards, such as Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper, which arrived between the years of 1495 and 1497, with some alterations then being made after the turn of the century.
La Belle Ferronnière can be found today at the Louvre in Paris, France. It is one of a number of Leonardo da Vinci artworks to be found in this impressive permanent collection, which also includes Saint John the Baptist, Bacchus, Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. An exhibition devoted to Da Vinci was held as recently as 2019 in the Lovure, and this brought together these impressive items alongside a number of additional loans which swelled the display to around thirty items from his career, including many of his preparatory drawings which are normally spread across a variety of private and public international collections.
La Belle Ferronnière came at a time when Leonardo da Vinci was concentrating on single portraits of secular themes. It was towards the end of the 15th century that he also completed Portrait of a Musician, Lady with an Ermine and Litta Madonna, having previously been devoted to religious themes ever since emerging as a talented apprentice under the guidance of Andrea del Verrocchio. Da Vinci perfected some intricate painting techniques which enabled him to produce the finest portraits ever seen, with a subtle use of colour and layered paint which reproduced imagery in a lifelike manner. These skills were fully evolved by the time that he worked on La Belle Ferronnière and he would continue to use them in other genres in later decades. His religious paintings would still, after all, require elements of portraiture within them as well.
The larger image below of La Belle Ferronnière will help you to appreciate more of the detail added by the artist. Some of the items to look out for include the ribbons and other flourishes upon the model's clothing, as well as her jewellery which is used sparingly. There are also some elements of wear which have occurred over the centuries and some of these cracks in the brushwork can be seen. The cracks are particularly visible on the light tones of skin of the model's face, with most of the rest of the composition being considerably darker. Many art followers are unable to visit the Louvre in Paris, France, where they might have viewed this artwork in person, making larger images of it as found here all the more important.