Lady with an Ermine — Leonardo’s Masterpiece

Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490) by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) left his native Florence in the early 1480s to pursue opportunities in the Duchy of Milan. Working for the duke, Leonardo took on many important commissions during his Milan years. His most famous work from this period, is with out a doubt, the ‘Last Supper’ in the convent of the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie. His most important portrait painting from this period is the ‘Lady with an Ermine,’ a painting of one of the duke’s mistresses. While Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is far more famous and displays many of the polymath’s interests, the ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is the best psychological portrait of the Italian Renaissance.

The sitter is Cecilia Gallerani (1473–1536), a native of Siena and favorite of Milanese duke Ludovico Sforza. She is depicted in the classic three-quarter turn pose. This pose was already standard for portrait painting, having been popularized by Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Gallerani looks away but there is an intensity to her gaze, something noticeably absent from famous depictions of women in earlier Renaissance art (contrast with two examples below).

Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Battista Sforza, Duchess of Urbino (1472–1473) by Piero della Francesca

These two portraits of female sitters tend to be idealized to a greater or lesser degree. Contrast the intensity of Cecelia Gallerani’s gaze with the face of the woman in the Arnolfini portrait (or even the man’s face and the woman’s in that portrait by van Eyck). The portrait of Battista Sforza was created as a diptych (with her husband, the duke) as the other half. Her riches dominate.

Cecelia Gallerani’s lack of such elaborate jewelry, coupled with the black background, give the painting a greater air of introspection in which greater focus is on the subject herself.

The ermine appears tense, almost defensive of the woman. Symbolically, perhaps the ermine symbolizes purity in the portrait. This would be consistent with tradition and Leonardo’s understanding, expressed years later: “The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity” (from a bestiary created by Leonardo). Duke Ludovico Sforza had recently been awarded the Order of the Ermine by King Ferdinando I of Naples. In all likelihood, the fact that Sforza was awarded this honor in 1488, is a prime reason Leonardo likely included the ermine. The scientist Pascal Cotte examined the portrait with state of the art technology to look underneath the surface to see the different layers of the composition. Among the things he discovered was that the ermine was added in the second and third stages of the painting.

The black background is not unique to the portrait of Cecelia Gallerani. Leonardo’s ‘La belle ferronnière’ and ‘Portrait of a musician,’ other masterpieces of his Milan years, also has a black background.

La belle ferronnière (1490–1496) by Leonardo da Vinci
Portrait of a Musician (1485) by Leonardo da Vinci

Cecelia Gallerani presided over intellectual discussions at the court of Ludovico Sforza, serving a prominent role much like the salon hostesses of the Age of Enlightenment would centuries later. She invited Leonardo da Vinci to these meetings. Ludovico Sforza fell from power with a French invasion in 1499. After a brief attempt at retaking Milan from the French, he was captured and died eight years later in the Château de Loches as a prisoner. Cecelia Gallerani had become an increasingly distant figure in the duke’s eye at the insistence of his wife Beatrice d’Este. Gallerani married a count in 1492. After her husbands death just over two decades later, she retired to San Giovanni in Croce and died in 1536.

drawing of Cecelia Gallerani by Leonardo da Vinci

The portrait of the ‘Lady with an Ermine’ remained in Italy until it was purchased by the Polish noble and art collector Prince Adam Czartoryski in 1798. It was sent out of Poland in 1830 as the Russians invaded what was Poland. In 1939, it was stolen by invading Nazi forces and returned to Poland after World War II. On loan at the Czartoryski Museum, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage formally bought the painting in 2016. The painting is currently housed in the National Museum, Kraków.