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The Felton Bequest gifting a masterpiece by Lavinia Fontana to the NGV

Italian artist Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is widely recognised as the first woman to become a professional painter in Europe, winning many prestigious commissions and becoming the first woman admitted into the illustrious guild for painters in Rome, the Accademia di San Luca. Generously acquired by the Felton Bequest, Fontana’s Mystic marriage of St Catherine, c. 1575, is the first painting by this important artist to enter a public collection in Australia and brings a new perspective to the NGV’s strong holdings of Italian Baroque paintings. 

Fontana established her reputation by producing portraits and small devotional works, such as Mystic marriage of St Catherine. This painting illustrates a vision experienced by the Christian martyr, St Catherine of Alexandria (c. 287 – c. 305 CE), in which she consecrated herself to Christ. Catherine lived in Egypt when it was under Roman rule and was persecuted for her Christian beliefs. In a desperate act to change her faith, Emperor Maxentius tried to make Catherine marry him, but she refused him and dedicated herself to Christ.

Many of Fontana’s early works featured strong and powerful women from ancient mythology and Christian history. As well as St Catherine, St Elisabeth, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, she also painted the Old Testament heroine Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes, and the goddess Venus.
Fontana was actively encouraged by her parents to be an artist – an extraordinarily enlightened act for the time. Her father, Prospero Fontana, was her teacher and strongly promoted her career. Lavinia Fontana’s painting will sit in the NGV Collection alongside one by her father, Holy Family with Saint Jerome, a female martyr and the infant Saint John the Baptist, c. 1552–1555, which was also acquired by the Felton Bequest for the NGV in 1961.

Tony Ellwood AM, Director of the NGV, said: ‘This extraordinary painting is one of Fontana’s earliest works and, painted while the artist was still in her early twenties, speaks to her prodigious talent. This is a significant addition to the NGV Collection and joins other key acquisitions in recent years that take important steps towards addressing historical gender imbalances by highlighting the artistic accomplishments of women throughout art history.

‘Mystic marriage of St Catherine is the earliest work by a known female artist to enter the Gallery’s collection and it establishes a legacy that will resonate with generations of visitors. The NGV has been investigating this particular artist for many years and are grateful to the Felton Bequest for generously acquiring this work for the NGV. The Felton Bequest has significantly assisted the growth and development of the NGV Collection, making it one of the finest collections of art in our region,’ said Ellwood.

Sir Andrew Grimwade, Chairman of the Felton Bequests’ Committee, said: ‘The Felton Bequest is delighted to gift this masterpiece by Lavinia Fontana to the NGV. Painted over more than 400 years ago, it is sure to be seen as one of the Felton Bequest’s great acquisitions, reflecting Alfred Felton’s vision and legacy. The Felton Bequest is thrilled that this painting is also by the world’s first professional woman artist – and her first to enter a public collection in Australia.’

Lavinia Fontana’s Mystic marriage of St Catherine is on display at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne.
Free entry. Further information is available via the NGV website: NGV.MELBOURNE 

The NGV warmly thanks the Felton Bequest for generously acquiring this work for the NGV.

Watch the video here


Observations online seminar series
From March 2022
The acquisition of Lavinia Fontana’s Mystic marriage of St Catherine coincides with a landmark year-long online seminar series, Observations, which will explore the role of women in art history and the important contributions that museums can make in curating and collecting the work of women artists and designers. Named after English artist Mary Beale’s 1633 text Observations by MB, which is widely recognised as the first manuscript on painting written by a female artist, the NGV-curated series will be held throughout 2022 and feature leading global historians, writers and curators. The series positions key artists and works in the NGV Collection as the basis for a rich discussion of women practitioners and their legacy.

In March 2022, the first online event in the series, A studio of her own, explores the period 1500-1900 and the women artists and designers who, despite the many obstacles to their independence, set up professional studios and made successful careers. Leading the discussion on Fontana’s role in this landmark period will be world-leading authorities Maria Teresa Cantaro, Author of Lavinia Fontana: Singular Painter, 1552-1614 and Adelina Modesti author of Elisabetta Sirani 'Virtuosa': Women's Cultural Production in Early Modern Bologna and Senior Fellow (Art History and Art Curatorship) in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.

Future seminars in the Observations series focus on women of the avant-garde in the early to mid-twentieth century, and industry contexts for collecting and interpreting women artists. Visit NGV.MELBOURE to register interest in A Studio of her Own and other events in the Observations series in 2022.


The Felton Bequest, established in 1904 in accordance with the will of Alfred Felton, was Australia’s first great philanthropic gift. Managed by Equity Trustees, it remains the most valuable bequest ever made to the Arts in Australia. With an initial corpus of £380,000, it provided the NGV with access to funds greater than those of London's National and Tate Galleries combined. Its income is divided into two Bequests, one funding acquisitions of works of art for gifting to the NGV, and the other making distributions to charitable organisations in Victoria, particularly those that benefit women and children.

Photo cation: 
Lavinia Fontana
Mystic marriage of St Catherine c. 1575
oil on copper
48.5 x 33.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria,
Felton Bequest, 2021