Review ‘What the Ermine Saw’: The Journey of a Da Vinci Painting

While Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” is the artist’s most famous painting, it may not be his most intriguing, accomplished, or beautiful. It may not even be his best portrait. A strong contender in the latter category is “Lady with an Ermine” (c. 1490), whose subject has been identified as the Milanese noblewoman Cecilia Gallerani, probably around 16 years old when she sat for her portrait.

Unlike “Mona Lisa,” for which Leonardo used the smoky, hazy technique known as sfumato, “Lady” presents Cecilia’s facial features with clarity. Her expression is not so much enigmatic – as Mona Lisa is often described – as focused. She looks to the side of the frame with a calm but determined look, intelligent and watchful. Her features are regular and beautiful, her clothes modest. She wears a blue dress with only limited trim on the sleeves; a single strand of beads hangs around her neck and a thin black band runs across her forehead. The most surprising element of the portrait is the small animal she is holding, a white ermine that mimics her expression, which she cradles in the crook of her arm, stroking it with an elegant hand.

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