Excerpt from a Liberal Arts essay on the effects of processes and media used by Renaissance artists by Year 13 student Carter Milne.
Interviewer: What is your favorite work? Discuss why this is the case.
Leonardo: Although it is certainly not the most well known, “Lady with an Ermine” has always been a favorite. As an artist I could be incredibly frustrating for my patrons, as I often didn’t complete the work I started, In this case however I had no such problems. I have always appreciated beauty and Cecelia Gallerani was the most beautiful woman in Italy when I painted the portrait
Painted in Oil paint on a wooden panel, the work depicts Cecelia at 16, in the prime of her innocence and at the height of her elegance. She holds a muscular Ermine in her arms, poised in readiness to jump. The contrast between the sweetness of Cecilia and the stoat creates a wonderful sense of tension immediately capturing the interest of the viewer.
I created the piece at the request of Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. Although he was engaged to the daughter of a powerful family, it was well known that Ludovico had a mistress – Cecelia who the portrait is of. The Ermine is known as a cunning and vicious animal despite being associated with purity. More importantly however, it was the personal emblem of Ludovico and its presence symbolizes their relationship. This is reinforced by the expensive string of polished jet hung around her neck as a reference to the complexion of her lover. There is a noticeable sexual undertone, which is accentuated by Cecelia’s erotic caress of the Ermine.
Through the application of sfumato, gradual changes in tone are achieved, giving Cecelia a softness that contrasts strongly with the Ermine. This is complimented by the change in light from the dark background to the pure white on the stoat’s forehead. The fine minever brush was used for the intricate detail around the hands – have always been fascinated by hands and these are some of my best ones – I nailed every contour and every wrinkle. One of the chief reasons I was able to achieve such realism was through my extensive study of the anatomy. I painted thousands of hands in various positions over the course of my life and had a deep knowledge of the mechanics of the hand as well. I used brighter colors than in my other works like the “Mona Lisa” and “Virgin on the Rocks” and as a result the mood is somewhat less somber and foreboding.