She was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker, and her portrait—the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas—was probably commissioned about the time of her marriage at age 16. Leonardo himself was only about six years older. The portrait is among his earliest experiments with the new medium of oil paint; some wrinkling of the surface shows he was still learning to control it. Still, the careful observation of nature and subtle three–dimensionality of Ginevra's face point unmistakably to the new naturalism with which Leonardo would transform Renaissance painting. Ginevra is modeled with gradually deepening veils of smoky shadow—not by line, not by abrupt transitions of color or light.
Other features of Ginevra's portrait reveal young Leonardo as an innovator. He placed her in an open setting at a time when women were still shown carefully sheltered within the walls of their family homes, with landscapes glimpsed only through open windows. The three–quarter pose, which shows her steady reserve, is among the first in Italian portraiture, for either sex.
At some time in the past, probably because of damage, the panel was cut down by a few inches along the bottom, removing Ginevra's hands. A drawing by Leonardo survives that suggests their appearance—lightly cradled at her waist and holding a small sprig, perhaps a pink, a flower commonly used in Renaissance portraits to symbolize devotion or virtue. Ginevra's face is framed by the spiky, evergreen leaves of a juniper bush, the once–brighter green turned brown with age. Juniper refers to her chastity, the greatest virtue of a Renaissance woman, and puns her name. The Italian for juniper is ginepro.
The vast majority of female portraits were commissioned on one of two occasions: betrothal or marriage. Wedding portraits tend to be made in pairs, with the woman on the right side. Since Ginevra faces right, this portrait is more likely to have commemorated her engagement. Her lack of obvious finery, however, is somewhat surprising. Jewels, luxurious brocades, and elaborate dresses were part of dowry exchanges and displayed a family’s wealth.
Marks and Labels
Reigning Princes of Liechtenstein in Vienna and later Vaduz, principality of Liechtenstein, by 1733, the date of a red wax seal, bearing the Liechtenstein arms, on the reverse; purchased 10 February 1967 by NGA.
- Meisterwerke aus den Sammlungen des Fürsten von Lichtenstein, Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, 1948, no. 103.
- [Exhibition of paintings lent by the Prince of Liechtenstein], National Gallery, London, 1951, no cat.
- In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
- Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2001-2002, no. 16, color repro.
- Bode, Wilhem von. Die Fürstlich Liechtenstein'sche Galerie in Wien. Vienna, 1896: 63-65, no. 32, plate.
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- European Paintings and Sculpture: Illustrations (Companion to the Summary Catalogue, 1965). Washington, 1968: 65, no. 2326, repro.
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- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 192, repro.
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- Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991-1992: no. 169, repro. (the painting was not in the exhibition).
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- Gingold, Diane J. and Elizabeth A.C. Weil. The Corporate Patron. New York, 1991: 10, color repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 258, 262, color repros.
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- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 20, repro.
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- Goffen, Rona. Titian's Women. New Haven and London, 1997: no. 31, repro.
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- Boskovits, Miklós, David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2003: 357-369, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 28-31, no. 22, color repros.
- Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, 2006: 453-454, color fig. 16.14.
- Rosenberg, Pierre. Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Milan, 2006: 16, 17, color fig. 14.
- Fagnard, Laure. Léonard de Vinci en France: collections et collectionneurs (XVème – XVIIème siècles). Rome: Bretschneider, 2009: 73.
- Gariff, David, Eric Denker, and Dennis P. Weller. The World's Most Influential Painters and the Artists They Inspired. Hauppauge, NY, 2009: 30, color repro.
- Radke, Gary M., et al. Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture. Exh. cat. High Museum of Art, Atlanta; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. New Haven and London, 2009: 39-40, fig. 16, 61 n. 73.
- Rubin, Patricia. "Understanding Renaissance Portraits." In The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini ed. Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann. Exh. cat. Berlin 2011. New York, 2011: 17, color fig. 7.
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- Dempsey, Charles. The Early Renaissance and Vernacular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: vii, 36-42, 101, fig. 4.
- Elam, Caroline. "Art and Cultural Identity in Lorenzo de' Medici's Florence." In Florence (Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance) edited by Francis Ames-Lewis. Cambridge, 2012: xii, 5, 238, color pl. 30.
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- Campbell, Stephen J. and Michael W. Cole. Italian Renaissance Art. New York, 2013: 250-251, color fig. 9.20.
- Harris, Neil. Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Chicago and London, 2013: 68-86, 181, 231, 399, 409, 519 n.12, 520 n. 16, repro.
- "Vasari and the National Gallery of Art." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 2013): 14, repro.
- Walmsley, Elizabeth. "Technical images and painting technique in Leonardo's portrait of Ginevra de' Benci." In Leonardo Da Vinci and Optics: Theory and Pictorial Practice. Edited by Francesca Fiorani and Alessandro Nova. Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut. Studi e Ricerche 10. Venice, 2013: 54-77, fig. 1, fig. 2 (infrared reflectogram composite), fig. 3 (X-radiograph composite), figs. 4-8 (details).
- Esterow, Milton. “From $126 to $75 Million.” Artnews 113, no. 5 (May 2014): 39, color repro.
- Collareta, Marco. "Nouvelles études sur le paragone entre les arts." Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art 2015, no. 1 (julliet 2015): 154-155, fig. 2.
- Jenkins, Mark. "Important Piece of The City's Art Puzzle." Washington Post 139, no. 97 (March 11, 2016): 17, color repro.