Why is the La Belle Ferronnière arranged near The Lady with an Ermine at the National Gallery in London? I have to write a 750-word discussion that considers issues involved with physical and...

Why is the La Belle Ferronnière arranged near The Lady with an Ermine at the National Gallery in London?

I have to write a 750-word discussion that considers issues involved with physical and cultural context of these two portraits.

Questions to consider are:

  • What kind of narrative is being created by the arrangement of the portraits?
  • How might the viewer experience this part of the exhibit?
  • What other associated circumstances might also be factors?
  • Would you arrange them this way?
  • Why or why not? What are some other ways in which the images could have been arranged?

The tricky part is I am not allowed to discuss Leonardo's biographical information and his other works.

*details in attached image

In case it doesnt appear: http://imgur.com/sIRWkmG

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Discussing or explaining the arrangement of La Belle Ferronniere and The Lady with an Ermine without reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s personal life constitutes a dubious proposition given the artist’s relationship to the women believed depicted in each painting.  Ludovico Maria Sforza was the Duke of Milan and da Vinci’s patron.  Both women, it is believed, were his mistresses, Cecelia Gallerani being first, followed by Lucrezia Crivelli.  Gallerani is believed to be the model for The Lady with an Ermine, and Crivelli is believed to be the subject of La Belle FerronniereLa Belle Ferronniere is the subject of considerable debate regarding its origins, and it is questionable whether da Vinci was even its artist.  Given the possible connections of both women to Ludovico Sforza and the relationship of Sforza to da Vinci, the suggestion that the subjects of both paintings are linked by their presumed and sequential affairs with the duke lends their placement an air of mystery that otherwise would be lacking.  Art historians have suggested that Gallerani was pregnant at the time of the painting with the duke’s child, and the significance of the ermine she is holding in the painting could be associated in the artist’s mind with the fact Sforza had been awarded the Order of the Ermine, the animal being a “symbol of moral purity and innocence.” [“The Symbolism of Purity in the Christmas Scene,” Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D., linked below]

If all this speculation and knowledge be true, then the placement of the paintings in close proximity, with Crivelli staring at Gallerani, who stares away into the distance as though deliberately avoiding the condescending and judgmental gaze of her successor in Sforza’s chamber.  Given the manipulative arrangement of the paintings in the exhibit, there is no reason their orders couldn’t be reversed, with Gallerani, the pregnant and possibly spurned mistress gazing critically at Crivelli, bitter at her condition and her replacement with this interloper. 

How the viewer experiences this part of the exhibit is entirely dependent upon his or her knowledge of the backgrounds of the paintings and of the relationships involved.  Absent such knowledge, the viewer may not necessarily draw any particular conclusions regarding the placement of the paintings; knowledgeable viewers, however, will almost certainly draw the proper, intended conclusions. 

Associated circumstances that might also be considered include the structure and nature of the broader exhibit.  Da Vinci is one of the most important figures in human history, the veritable “Renaissance Man” who contributed substantively in the worlds of art, science and the humanities in general.  Alternatively, the paintings could be viewed strictly in the context of palace intrigues prevalent during the period in question, including the important political role in society played by the Catholic Church.  The Renaissance, though, ushered in the modern era, and to be considered the preeminent figure of that age is a legacy any human would envy.  A focus or examination of da Vinci’s art work provides a window into both the era and the man behind the paintings. 

Of course, if La Belle Ferronnieri was not painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and if the subject of the painting is not Lucrezia Crivelli but somebody else, then all of this speculation is, obviously, for naught.