Self-Portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant, c. 1577, Oil on canvas.
Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna on August 24, 1552, the daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana, who was a prominent painter of the School of Bologna at the time and served as her teacher. Continuing the family business was typical at the time.
Her earliest known work, ” Monkey Child”, was painted in 1575 at the age of 23. Though this work is now lost, another early painting, Christ with the Symbols of the Passion, painted in 1576 is now in the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. She would go on to paint in a variety of genres.
Early in her career, she was most famous for painting upper-class residents of her native Bologna.
She began her commercial practice by painting small devotional paintings on copper, which had popular appeal as papal and diplomatic gifts, given the value and lustre of the metal.
In addition to portraits (the typical subject matter for women painters), she later created large scale paintings with religious and mythological themes which sometimes included female nudes.
Fontana married Paolo Zappi (alternately spelled Paolo Fappi) in 1577. She gave birth to 11 children, though only 3 outlived her.
After marriage, Fontana continued to paint to support her family. Zappi took care of the household and served as painting assistant to his wife, including painting minor elements of paintings like draperies.