Lavinia Fontana, Italian, 1552-1614
Title: The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
Date: 1599
Medium: Oil on canvas
251.7 x 326.5 cm
Credit Line: Purchased, 1872
Object Number: NGI.76
DescriptionIn this monumental composition, Lavinia Fontana uses the Old Testament account of the meeting of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba as a pretext to illustrate a sumptuous real-life event in a contemporary Italian court. It was previously thought that this work was an allegorical portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Mantua. We now believe that the protagonists in this multi-figure composition are in fact the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara, then Alfonso II d’Este and his wife, Margherita Gonzaga. An inscription on a clock applied on the uppermost layer of paint as a final flourish and revealed during a 2020 conservation project provides a terminus ante quem for the painting, dating its completion to 1599. The original function of this large painting remains unknown, but it seems reasonable to presume that it was commissioned for both allegorical and celebratory purposes.

Lavinia Fontana was one of the most successful female painters in the history of Western art. The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon is widely recognised as Fontana’s most ambitious painting. Showcasing the artist’s talents across several genres, it is her largest surviving painting and the largest narrative work that she ever produced.

ProvenancePossibly recorded as part of the Berò collection in Bologna in 1635; recorded in a survey of the contents of the Palazzo Zambeccari in Bologna between 1760 and 1780; documented again in the Palazzo Zambeccari in 1850; purchased via an intermediary by Prince Napoléon, first cousin of Napoleon III, in 1859 and transported to the Palais-Royal in Paris; saved from a fire at the Palais-Royal in 1871; transported to London and purchased by the NGI at auction, Christies, London, 8-9 August 1872.
Exhibition HistoryGonzaga: La Celeste Galeria, Galleria Civica di Palazzo Te, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, 1 September – 8 December 2002

The Women's Art Show, 1550 to 1970, Nottingham Castle Museum, Nottingham, 30 May - 1 August 1982
Label TextThis extraordinarily detailed composition depicts the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara, then Alfonso II d’Este and his wife, Margherita Gonzaga, in the guise of Old Testament rulers, the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Lavinia Fontana is considered the first woman artist to have achieved professional success in Europe. Showcasing her talents across multiple genres, this monumental painting is Fontana’s largest surviving work, and the most ambitious that she ever created. An inscription on the base of the clock carried by one of the ladies-in-waiting provides a terminus ante quem for the canvas, dating its completion to 1599.

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