This portrait has been reattributed to Lavinia Fontana, who was much in demand as a portrait painter at the end of the 16th century. She trained alongside Agostino Carracci in her father Prospero’s studio in Bologna, although she was forbidden to enrol in the Academy because of its focus on drawing from the nude.
Portrait of a Lady demonstrates Fontana’s painterliness, her mastery of the depiction of lace and jewellery, and her intuitive understanding of structure and form, which she derived from observing antique statuary. Yet in her treatment of the hands, there is little sense of the bone structure beneath the skin. In portraits of the period, the lap dog was a popular symbol of marital fidelity, an essential quality in a good wife.
The main focus of such portraits was not so much to produce a ‘living likeness’, but to represent the most noble aspects of a person’s character. According to the Bolognese noblewoman Lucrezia Marinella, men could win success and honour in many fields, but only ornamentation and dress were available to women as signs of accomplishment. Ironically, these items always remained the property of one’s father or husband. By rendering them with such care, Fontana served her sitter well.