Strange and Unusual Portrait by Fontana

Yesterday I came across the strangest portrait I have ever seen. Take a look at Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (also written as “Gonzales,” c. 1595, on left). At first, I didn’t know what to make of this painting. Was it a joke? Why would young girl be depicted with a hairy face?

This is no joke, my friends. In fact, it’s a rather unusual story. Antonietta Gonzalez (as well as her father, two sisters and other family members) had hypertrichosis (also commonly called “werewolf syndrome”). This is a rare genetic disorder which causes an abnormal amount of hair on the body. (You can read more about the disorder and see some interesting images here.) Antonietta’s father, Pedro (sometimes written as Pedrus) Gonzalez, was the first known person to be affected with this disorder. Given the rarity of the disease, it seems a little surprising that so many people within the Gonzalez family were affected by hypertrichosis. One writer noted that in terms of pathology, “the Gonzales sisters were one in a billion – all three of them.”1

Luckily, though, Antonietta and her sisters were not shunned by society, but welcomed into the courts of Europe. Although I’m sure that these girls served as objects of curiosity to some degree, they also were subject to medical investigations and, obviously, portrait sittings. Antonietta explains a little of her personal history in the handwritten note which she holds in the portrait: “Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.”2

Historian Merry Weisner-Hanks has speculated that Lavinia Fontana met Antonietta in Parma. I hope to find more information about the portrait in The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their World a relatively new book by Weisner-Hanks. It looks really interesting.

Okay, so here’s my question: do you know of a portrait more unusual or strange than this one? Let’s make it a little game; I’m curious to see what people might submit. And I’ll let you, dear readers, decide what constitutes “unusual” or “strange” (e.g. the sitter, the artistic presentation of the sitter, the medium, etc.).

P.S. As I was finishing up this post, my two-year-old looked at the Fontana portrait and said, “Hey, is that you?” Ha ha! I didn’t realize that I was having such a bad hair day!

1 Jason Zasky, “Hair Apparent,” in Failure Magazine (n.d.), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).

2 Merry Weisner-Hanks, “Hairy Marvels and Beastly Sex,” in National Sexuality Resource Center (1 October 2009), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).


Picasso on a Bicycle

I don’t know how I’ve functioned as an art historian without seeing this Monty Python clip about Picasso on a bicycle:

I found this clip after coming across another art history blog, Art History Ramblings. The author Catherine lists as many artists as she was able to hear in the clip, and I couldn’t decipher the others ones shouted by John Cleese.

So now I propose a game, readers. Do you know of any the artists mentioned in this clip which actually depict a bicycle in their art? (And I don’t think that I heard Duchamp listed in the clip, so you can’t choose his Bicycle Wheel (original of 1913). That’s too easy, anyway.)  I’m not too savvy on bicycle art, but I do have one contribution:

Georges Braque, My Bicycle (Mon Velo), 1941-60
This painting is in a private collection, so I don’ t know much about it. But it is briefly mentioned in this MOMA biography on Braque
Happy bicycle hunting! And happy weekend!

St. Louis Art Museum Quiz

I just took this fun art history quiz, which revolves around portraits from the St. Louis Art Museum’s collection. I missed one question – I didn’t bother to read the captions and mistakenly attributed a Gauguin painting to Van Gogh. If I had taken more time, I would have gotten them all right.

How did you do?


Valentine’s Day Quiz: Famous Couples in Art

At a Valentine party earlier this week, I took a quiz to test my knowledge of famous couples in history. As a group, the party members did pretty well – except we missed one question about Aspasia and Pericles.

The quiz got me thinking about some famous couples that are depicted in art. So I decided to make a quiz of my own. See if you can name any of the famous couples in the following works of art:

This one is a little tricky. Hint: look at the knife in the woman’s foot. You might be more familiar with another variation of this story, where this woman slashes her thigh to show her loyalty to her husband.

How many couples did you guess? Check your answers in the comments section of this post. You get extra points for every artist that you can name, too.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Heidenkind’s Art History Reading Challenge

I’m entering in a fun art history reading challenge on the blog Heidenkind’s Hideaway. Check it out and sign up too!

The first book I’m going to read fits into the General Studies category: The Challenge of the Avant Garde (edited by Paul Wood). After that, I think I’ll read one for the Popular History category: The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome by Jake Morrissey.
This is going to be fun! I’m excited. There are so many art history books that I have bought and need to read – this challenge may help me to plow through my stack!
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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.