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).


Elizabeth I and a Snake?

I’ve always liked royal portraits. It’s always fun to see how a monarch decides to visually assert his/her power, prestige, wisdom, wealth, etc. In portraiture, these attributes and characteristics of the sitter are emphasized through various signifiers (e.g. lavish, expensive clothing signifies that the wearer of the clothes is rich). What what if the signifier (or symbol) isn’t clear or easily understood?

That seems to be the case with this portrait by Elizabeth I (anonymous artist, 16th century, shown left). The final product of this painting showed Elizabeth I holding a bunch of roses in her hand. I haven’t seen what the painting looked like with roses (this Telegraph article described the roses as a “decorative” element), but it seems to me that roses could have also been been an easily identifiable symbol for Elizabeth I, since roses were a symbol of her family, the house of Tudor.1
But whether these roses were symbolic or decorative, they were obviously added at the last minute. Deterioration of this painting has revealed that the monarch originally was holding a snake in her hand. Based on the remaining visual evidence, an artist has recreated how the snake probably appeared in the original portrait (see below). It is thought that the snake was repainted with roses because of the “ambiguity” of the serpent symbol (again, see Telegraph article).

Well, “ambiguity” is right. The well-known symbolic associations with snakes are the Fall, sin, death, and Satan. And I’m pretty sure Elizabeth I wasn’t going for those associations. Once in a while you hear about snakes being associated with wisdom, so maybe that explains why the snake was originally included? Can you think of any other symbolic reasons why Elizabeth I would be depicted with a snake?

On another note, deterioration of this painting has also caused a strange ghostly appearance on Elizabeth I’s forehead. This portrait was painted over another unfinished portrait, and the eyes and nose of the previous woman face have become visible. It appears that the painter of Elizabeth I decided to reuse the unfinished panel, a common practice at the time.

Poor Elizabeth. As was suggested on The Corinthian Column, Elizabeth I doesn’t appear to have been the most attractive of monarchs. And having an extra nose and pair of eyes in your forehead is not going to improve your looks.2

1 You can see other portraits of Elizabeth I with Tudor roses, such as “The Pelican Portrait by Nicolas Hilliard (c. 1575-1580).

2 This Elizabeth I portrait is part of the National Portrait Gallery (London) collection. It has not been on display for almost a century, but will soon be exhibited as part of the show “Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I.” The show runs from March 13 to September 26.


Browere’s Life Mask of Jefferson

Have you heard the story of how Thomas Jefferson was nearly killed by the artist John H. I. Browere? The elderly, retired statesman and ex-president was approached in 1825 by Browere, who asked to be allowed to take a life mask of Jefferson. Apparently, Browere was not very skillful; the plaster hardened too quickly, which impaired Jefferson’s breathing and ability to cry out for help. Luckily, Jefferson’s hand was resting on a nearby chair, and he was able to bang it on the floor to bring attention to his distress.

To make matters worse, Browere did not apply enough oil on Jefferson’s face, so the plaster stuck to the frail man’s face. Browere had to use a mallet and chisel to break the plaster off of Jefferson’s skin, and the ex-president reportedly groaned and even sobbed during the whole ordeal.1 When discussing the removal process, Jefferson wrote in a letter that “there became a real danger that [my] ears would separate from [my] head sooner than from the plaster.”2

Poor man. It’s no wonder that Jefferson wrote in the same letter, “I now bid adieu for ever to busts and even portraits.”3

The above photograph of this infamous life mask was taken in 1939 by LIFE photographer Bernard Hoffman. Jefferson’s expression doesn’t look to happy – and can you blame him? The man couldn’t breathe!

Understandably, Browere didn’t have the greatest reputation. He was called an “itinerant sculptor” by Dumas Malone and a “vile plaisterer” by Jefferson’s granddaughter.4 Artists in the American Academy (i.e. Trumbull) and National Academy were opposed to Bowere, too.5 It seems, though, that the ambitious writer Charles Henry Hart was able to overlook all of Bowere’s faults. In 1899 Hart published a thorough examination of Bowere’s life casts in a book, and he even went as far as to call Bowere an “ingenious” man.6 (No doubt such a statement reflected well on Hart, who credited himself with rediscovering the artist.) Hmph.

Granted, I do think it is really fun to see life casts of so many prominent members from American history. In that aspect, I’m appreciative of what Bowere did. (If you are interested, you should look at some of the life casts in Hart’s book, found online here). As an artist, though, Bowere definitely was lacking in skill. After all, he almost killed one of the Founding Fathers through his incompetence.

Let’s end this post with a more pleasant portrait of Jefferson, shall we? At least Jefferson appears to breathe freely in this bust:

Houdon, Thomas Jefferson, 1789 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

1 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 626.

2 Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 18 October 1825, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 3:1942-43. See also Gordon-Reed, 627.

3 Ibid.

4 Gordon-Reed, 626.

5 Charles Henry Hart, “Life Masks – Those Browere Made of Great Americans. Charles Heny Hart’s Comments on Them.” New York Times, 8 April 1899. Copy of article can be accessed here.

6 Charles Henry Hart, Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans (Doubleday & McClure Company, 1899), x. Citation can be accessed online here.


Cezanne = Geometric Man

Camille Pissarro, Portrait of Cezanne, 1874

I just stumbled across this portrait of Cezanne. I’d never seen a portrait of the Cezanne before, but it makes me happy that Pissarro depicted his friend in a bulky, geometric fashion. Actually, it appears that Cezanne was a large-ish man (at least at some point in his life), as evidenced by this self-portrait (c. 1873-1876), this one (c. 1875).*

I like the thought that this bulkier, full-bearded man is reflected in the geometric, bulky art forms that he created. It’s almost like Cezanne’s geometric forms (like this Mont Saint-Victoire from 1900) are portraits of the artist himself. Ha! I find that kind of cute.

*It appears that Cezanne varied in his physical bulk and size – he appears smaller in this photograph (c. 1861, when Cezanne was about 22 years old) and his face appears quite thin in this self-portrait (c. 1898-1900, when the artist was about 60 years old).


Chuck Close’s Wheelchair Painting

Many art history students are introduced to Chuck Close’s art with this painting:

Big Self Portrait, 1967-1968

Close is really interesting because of his painting theories and technique. Instead of just transferring a photograph into paint on a canvas, Close thinks that painting is a systematic and intellectual exercise. His work is not just about transferring images – he is transferring “photographic information into painted information“).1 I think it’s especially interesting that this systematic approach can be further seen in Close’s choice of large-scale canvases – they are basically same size (9′ x 7′).2 Although he is best described as a photorealist, this interest in systematic and intellectual art makes Close a little different from his colleagues.Anyhow, a conversation last night reminded me that Close’s later work is stylistically different from his early portraits. In 1988, a collapsed spinal artery left Close nearly paralyzed. Luckily, he has been able to continue painting from his wheelchair with a brush strapped to his partially mobile hand. Although Close was veering towards a more lively style before 1988, his current condition ensures that he cannot paint in the meticulous manner required for his early style. Personally, though, I really like Close’s later work. It’s dynamic and interesting. I also think that it’s fun to zoom in on Close’s later paintings until the portraits are unrecognizable; they become a myriad of colorful, stylized swirls and whorls.

You can see how much Close’s style has changed by looking at this self portrait:

Chuck Close, "Self-Portrait," 1997. Oil on canvas, 102 x 84" (259.1 x 213.4 cm)

Chuck Close, “Self-Portrait,” 1997. Oil on canvas, 102 x 84″ (259.1 x 213.4 cm)

I think it’s really awesome that Close has been able to continue his career and artistic vision (he even continues to paint on large-scale canvases!). You can watch a video of him working below (and read more of the CBS story here).

Pretty impressive stuff, huh? Which Chuck Close style do you like more? His early style or later style? Or neither?

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1056 (italics added for emphasis).

2 Ibid.


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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.