Lavinia Fontana, Italian, 1552-1614
Title: The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
Date: c.1600
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 biblical 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 is thought that the actual historical occasion represented was a visit of the Duke and Duchess of Mantua to Bologna in 1600, when they passed through the city on their way the wedding of their relative Marie de’ Medici and Henry IV of France in Florence. The Duke and Duchess, Vincenzo I Gonzaga and his wife Eleonora de’ Medici, appear in the guise of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Also represented are a number of members of the court, including ladies-in-waiting dressed in luxurious fabrics, an attendant with dwarfism, and a Great Dane. The original function of this large painting is today 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. It showcases all of the artist’s talents and crosses several genres. It is her largest surviving painting and the largest narrative work that she ever produced.

ProvenanceRecorded in a survey by Marcello Oretti in a Bolognese palazzo between 1760 and 1780; purchased by Prince Napoléon, first cousin of Napoleon III, who brought the painting to the Palais-Royal in Paris in the 1850s; saved from a fire at the Palais-Royal in 1872; purchased at auction, Christie's, London, 8-9 August 1872.
Exhibition HistoryThe Women's Art Show, 1550 to 1970, Nottingham Castle Museum, Nottingham, 30 May - 1 August 1982
Label TextLavinia Fontana was an accomplished painter of portraits and narrative scenes in her hometown of Bologna, and in Rome, where she lived from 1603. In this elaborate allegorical portrait, she portrayed Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and his wife Eleonora de’ Medici in the guise of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This painting was apparently inspired by an actual event, when the Duke and Duchess of Mantua passed through Bologna, in October 1600, on their way to attend the marriage of their relative Maria de’ Medici to Henry IV of France.