Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
Interpretation of Italian Renaissance Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani

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Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
Lady with an Ermine
Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani
By Leonardo da Vinci.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Lady with an Ermine (c.1490)


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Painting: Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani)
Date: c.1490
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: High Renaissance art
Location: Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.

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Interpretation of Lady with an Ermine

This masterpiece of Renaissance art, one of a handful of Renaissance portraits completed by Leonardo da Vinci, was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza - known as "il Moro", Duke of Milan, for whom Leonardo worked during the period c.1482-99. The lady - actually a 16-year old girl - is Cecilia Gallerani, reputedly the Duke's favourite mistress, who gave birth to his child in the same year that he married Beatrice d'Este. Holding the armorial animal of Ludovico il Moro in her arms, she is shown turning to the right, her eyes fixed on something off camera, with a hint of a smile on her lips. One of the finest Renaissance paintings, Lady with an Ermine is the main highlight of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. Other surviving portrait paintings by Leonardo include: Portrait of a Musician (c.1485, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana); Portrait of a Woman (La Belle Ferroniere) (1494, Louvre); Isabella d'Este (c.1499, Louvre - only the charcoal and red chalk drawing survives); Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-13, Louvre); Head of a Woman (La Scapiliata) (c.1508, Galleria Nazionale, Parma); St John the Baptist (c.1513, Louvre); Bacchus (St John) (1513-15, Louvre). In the subtlety and grace of his figure painting, Leonardo remains unequalled.



Cecilia Gallerani

This oil painting is executed on a walnut wood panel, primed with a layer of white gesso and brown underpaint. The original background of bluish-grey was repainted in black, allegedly by Eugene Delacroix, during the mid-19th century. Measuring 54 x 40 cm (21 x 16 inches), it shows a half-length figure of a girl (Cecilia Gallerani) turned at a three-quarter angle to her right, but with her face turned to her left. She is gazing at something, or someone, off to the right. In her arms she holds a small greyish animal referred to in the title as an ermine, but also called a stoat. Dressed in a fairly simple tunic, with her hair bound and plaited, Cecilia was one of a large non-aristocratic family, although she was known at court for her intellectual gifts, her poetry and her love of music.


Lady with an Ermine exemplifies several techniques of High Renaissance painting. First, Leonardo's mastery of chiaroscuro - the use of shadow to enhance the three-dimensional relief of the figure. Second, his use of sfumato to create fine and very gradual tonal changes, notably around the eyes and mouth - a technique he used extensively in the Mona Lisa. Third, X-ray and microscopic examination of the picture has revealed a preparatory drawing (delineated in charcoal) on the undersurface, a technique that Leonardo absorbed in the workshop of his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). In addition, it shows that a window originally appeared on the right of the picture, but was later deleted. Laboratory analysis has also uncovered Leonardo's fingerprints in the surface of the paint, proving that he used his fingers to blend his brushwork.

As in other Leonardo's paintings - see, for instance, The Virgin of the Rocks (c.1484, Louvre Museum) - Lady with an Ermine contains a pyramidic structure with the sitter captured in the act of turning to her left (while the ermine turns to its right), reflecting Leonardo's keen interest in the dynamic effects of movement.

The painting is also an excellent illustration of Leonardo's anatomical expertise. Cecilia's exposed right hand, for instance, is painted in great detail: each wrinkle around her knuckles, each fingernail - even the flexed tendon in her forefinger - is depicted with painstaking accuracy, as is the beauty spot on her right cheek. Almost every strand of fur around the Ermine's right ear is individually replicated.


The ermine is included in the portrait for several symbolic reasons. To begin with, in its white winter fur, the ermine was a traditional symbol of purity. In his notebook, known today as Codex H, Leonardo compiled copious notes on numerous animals, one of which was the ermine. He praises it for its moderation and purity. He also illustrated it - see his drawing The Allegory of the Ermine (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). It seems therefore that the creature was included as an allusion to Cecilia's purity and moderation. In addition, it also alluded to Ludovico il Moro, who had been a member of the Order of the Ermine, and used the animal as a personal heraldic emblem. This, in conjunction with Cecilia's gaze, gives Ludovico an invisible but important presence in the picture - an understandable response to a generous patron.


Lady with an Ermine was purchased in 1798 by the Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski and incorporated into the family art collection at Pulawy. It was moved frequently during the course of the 19th century: Princess Czartoryski rescued it from the invading Russian army in 1830, then dispatched it to Dresden and afterwards to Czartoryski family in exile in Paris, before , returning it to Krakow in 1882. In 1939, Nazi officials seized it and sent it to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. The following year, Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland, requested its return to Krakow. In 1945 it was taken to Frank's country home in Bavaria, where it was duly liberated by American troops who returned it to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.

Leonardo in Milan

Leonardo remained in the service of Ludovico Sforza for almost two decades (1482-99), as artist, architect and as chief engineer during the Duke's numerous military activities. In addition to painting, his largest commission was for a massive bronze statue to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, in the courtyard of the family castle. It was during his stay in Milan that he completed The Last Supper (c.1496) for the end wall of the dining hall at the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie.



Further Resources

For more details about late quattrocento art, see these resources.

High Renaissance Artists (c.1490-1530)
Panel Paintings

• For more about Italian Renaissance portraiture, see our main index: Homepage.

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