Artophilia  •  360   •  3 August 2017

Lady with an Ermine. Only one Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork in polish collections


Leonardo da Vinci Lady with an Ermine, ca. 1490
Oil on wood panel, 54 cm × 39 cm
National Museum, Kraków, Poland

Leonardo da Vinci Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo da Vinci Lady with an Ermine | ca. 1490, National Museum, Kraków, Poland

Who is this Lady?

Cecylia Gallerani not only was a significant person at the court of Sforza but also Ludvico Sforza’s lover (who was known also as ‘Ludvico il Moro’). As she was well educated, surrounded by Milano’s intellectual elite, she carried on philosophical debates. Moreover, she spoke fluent Latin and ancient Greek, she wrote a poetry and was considered as one of the most prominent Italian poets of that time.

Lady with a Weasel or Lady with an Ermine?

For a long time this painting was known as ‘Lady with a Weasel’, but finally the second version replaced it. In the summer, the ermines have chocolate – brown colour of the upper coats, so it’s easy to mistake them with the weasels. Hopefully, in the autumn their upper coats change colours to white so that we can distinguish the animals. After all, it’s quite difficult to identify this specific animal from the painting. Referring to da Vinci’s drafts of dog’s or bear’s paws, it seems like mentioned above ermine (or weasel) evolved from these early works.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Bear Walking

Leonardo da Vinci A Bear Walking early to mid 1480s, Florence, metalpoint on light buff prepared paper; 4 1/16 x 5 1/4 in. (10.3 x 13.3 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The portrait was painted when Ludvico was engaged to Beatrice d’Este. In this case, the painter couldn’t show openly a secret relationship which linked Sforza and Gallerani, so he decided to hide it in a plenty of symbols. An ermine (gr. galé) symbol of purity refers not only to name Gallerani, but also to Ludvico Sforza’s emblem, the Order of the Ermine. Moreover, in the painting an ermine is placed so that while watching it, people couldn’t find out that Gallerani was pregnant (it was Ludvico’s future son – Cesare).

Yet, the recognition of a painted animal is a moot point, after all the most important here is an emblem, not zoological precision. Smoothly turned body of an ermine and turn of the woman’s torso was something absolutely new in the way of painting portraits. This new method gave rhythm to the whole composition. It suggested some kind of a movement of a woman, because she’s turned the other way to the ermine’s body in a space. Such moving composition of a portrait brings to mind serpentine figure from Baroque, which means that the moving figures are marked by strong, sometimes even unnatural turn of a body. This ‘trick’ (popular in the mannerism) gives to the forms lightness and dynamics.

Woven motifs of lady’s dress are considered as some kind of a signature of Leonardo da Vinci. Name Vinci comes from vinchi – reeds woven in Tuscanian countries. Leonardo often put the tangles of vinchi in his codes and paintings. Cecylia Gallerani’s portrait was made in the time when the artist was conducting researches and optical experiments. Light in the painting is similar to the lighting in a photo studio. Focused light glows on the model on the right side and in this way it softens her and the animal’s figure. There were many, lengthy works which had as an aim to analyze the lady’s clothes. It has occurred that by the clothing and hairstyle the model represents Spanish fashion.

The painting’s fate

It’s probable that till the 1536, so Gallerani’s death, it was she who owned the painting. Further fates of the portrait aren’t so certain. The only thing which is sure is that the painting was in the collection of Czartoryscy family since 1800. The prince Adam Jerzy bought it in Italy for his mother Izabela Czartoryska (from Flemming family), who created at that time the first polish museum.

Unknown Polish artist Portrait of Duchess Izabela Czartoryska

Unknown Polish artist Portrait of Duchess Izabela Czartoryska | 19th century, photo: muzeum.czartoryskich.pl

From the time when the painting was being prepared to the display in an art gallery called Gothic House, there is an inscription in the upper left corner: ‘LA BELLE FERRONIÈRE LEONARD D’AWINCI’. Using letter ‘W’ instead of ‘V’ shows that the inscription has polish origin.

The Gothic House in Pulawy, Poland, photo: L. Lubicki

The Gothic House in Pulawy, Poland, photo: L. Lubicki

After the fall of November Uprising, the painting was transported to the palace in Sieniawa and bricked up for 8 years in an alcove in one of the chambers in order to protect it from occupier’s theft. In 1840 ‘Lady with an Ermine’ was again transported to Hôtel Lambert in Paris, which was seat in exile of Czartoryscy family. For about 30 years, the painting stayed there, inaccessible for public. At the break of 70’s and 80’s of XIX century, Czartoryscy moved their collection to Cracow, which was at that time under Austrian Partition. For the first time, Cecylia’s portrait was shown to the public in 1876, when The Princes Czartoryski Museum was open. For the time of I World War Lady’s portrait was put in Gemäldegalerie in Dresden – and at that time the painting was recognized as authentic artwork of Leonardo da Vinci and the identity of a model was confirmed. In 1920 the painting went back to Cracow.

Czartoryski Palace in Sieniawa

Czartoryski Palace in Sieniawa, photo: Podkarpacka Biblioteka Cyfrowa

Before the II World War the painting was hidden in Sieniawa again. Unfortunately, the occupiers uncovered this hideout and stole the painting. For a short time, it was displayed in Kaiser – Friedrich – Museum in Berlin (because for a longer time it was intended for a private museum of Hitler in Linz), and then it went to the collection of a governor – Hans Frank in Wawel Castle. At the end of the war, it was transported again, but this time to the private villa of the governor in Schliersee in Bavaria. When in 1945 the American army stepped into his villa, ‘Lady with an Ermine’ was then passed on to the artwork’s storeroom in Munich, and in the next year military authority decided that the painting can go back to Poland. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ with many other treasures came to Cracow and was put in The Princes Czartoryski Museum.

Black background

In 1952 Rudolf Kozłowski carried out a research concerning conservatory issues, which showed a useful piece of new information about the materials used by da Vinci and the stages of his work. At that time also a new hypothesis about an imaginative background was put forward. At last, such a dark background changed an outline of lady’s shoulders and neck. Even though the painting remained in a good state to our times, it is far from its previous, initial look. Not only has it changed due to time, but also due to many ‘corrections’ like repainting the background (which initially was slate-blue according to David Bull, conservator from National Gallery of Art in Washington). No one knows who and for what purpose changed it. It is probable that between the main figure and the background there was some kind of a harmony. After X- raying the painting in 1945, it was discovered that originally there was a window or a loggia behind the Lady.

In XIX century (so when Czartoryski family owned the painting), the upper left corner cracked and unfortunately, it was stuck together in a very neglected way. So it is likely that it was the main reason for repainting the background from mentioned slate-blue to black. In this new colour the main figure was too hidden, so in order to make the woman more noticeable, someone (probably a restorer) strengthened contrasts and the details of her dress.

A conservatory copy

In 2001, on the occasion of 200 anniversary of a creation of polish museum in Puławy, Mirosław Sikorski (a graduate from ASP in Cracow) made a conservatory copy of ‘Lady with an Ermine’, based on the research from Washington, where it was prepared a probable look of an artwork before repainting the background. Because of redecoration of Czartoryscy Museum, the painting is temporary accessible in Wawel Castle.

Leonardo da Vinci Lady with an Ermine

Mirosław Sikorski, conservatory copy of ‘Lady with an Ermine’, 2001

Czartoryscy Palace in Sieniawa

Let’s just stop for a while to contemplate a history of a beautiful estate of Czartoryscy family in Sieniawa. Thanks to two magnate families, which are strongly connected with the history of our country, the palace was created and was well developing. Adam Mikołaj Sieniawski (Earl in Szkłowo and Mysza; castellan of Cracow, and since 1706 – great crown hetman) was linked to the history of mentioned above palace. Just like his father Mikołaj Hieronim Sieniawski, who was a founder of this village, he had a passion for Sieniawa and he engaged in the development of the village. At the beginning of XVIII century, Adam Sieniawski created a park, and between 1718-1720 built an orangery, designed by Giovanni Spazzio, who was an italian prominent architect employed by Sieniawscy family. In the first half of XVIII century in Sieniawa, it was created a complex of buildings, mixture of palaces and parks. Everything was built in harmony with the time and with a high position of Sieniawscy family, one of the most prominent at that time in Poland. After 1731, Sieniawa changed its owner, due to the fact that Zofia Sieniawska (who was the only child of Adam Sieniawski) married August Czartoryski. In about 1812, prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski (August’s son) with his wife Izabela (from Flemming family) moved to Sieniawa on a permanent basis. Since then, Sieniawa became a main seat of Czartoryscy family.

During the I World War, palace in Sieniawa was very destroyed due to the hostilities, but much worse for this place was the time after war. Building was at the mercy of ordinary people, lacking in a public care, unprotected, was becoming more and more ruined. Since 80’s of XX century, there were provided many renovations. Between 1998 and 2002 there was a thorough reconstruction of a palace, thanks to which it came back to its former glory.

Palace in Sieniawa

Palace in Sieniawa

Nowadays, palace in Sieniawa (after its renovation) is accessible again for the guests as it is an antique example of the complex of restaurants and hotels.

Very few people know that in Sieniawa, exactly in a crypt situated in south part of a parish church, there are the ashes of Czartoryscy princes. In 22 coffins in this crypt, there are the ashes of the most prominent figures of this family.


On 29th December 2016 the Princes Czartoryski Collection became a property of a polish nation. In the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Piotr Gliński (a minister of culture and national heritage) on behalf of State Treasury signed a purchase agreement with Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski and Princes Czartoryski Foundation concerning mentioned Princes Czartoryski Collection, which was lost during II World War.

Thousands of worldwide artworks (like for instance: ‘Lady with an Ermine’, Landscape with a Good Samaritan’ by Rembrandt, ‘1863 – Polonia’ by Matejko, Rembrandt’s and Renoir’s paintings and drafts, Albrecht Dürer’s engravings) enriched then polish national collections.

Since 19th May 2017, the painting has been presented in the main edifice of National Museum in Cracow >>

Translated by: Weronika Kursa

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