Aesthetic Analysis

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lady with an ermine (1489–90), leonardo da vinci

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Technique: Oil on walnut wood panel

Dimensions: 54 × 39 cm

Year: 1489–1490

Location of creation:

Current Location: Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland

Movements: High Renaissance

Theme: Portrait

Subject: Woman with a ermine

painting summary

Painted a decade before the Mona Lisa, it is the portrait of Ludovico’s mystress Cecilia, Leonardo’s patron for over 18 years. The painting’s connotation points to the close relationship between the two lovers, as the essence of the duke is portrayed in the muscular ermine. This is one of the only four portraits of woman Leonardo has ever painted, and highly influenced the following ones.

general description

The painting depicts a woman turned toward her right in a contrapposto pose, in a three-quarter angle, with her head turned to her left. The woman’s gaze is directed beyond the picture frame at what seems to be a ‘third party’. She is caught in a mysterious action, poised as if listening to an unseen speaker. As she holds an ermine in her arms, a blue sbernia (a fabric made of fine wool) falls down from her right shoulder, over a red velvet and simple gown; her hair is coiffure (tucked in a coazzone); the thin dark fillet across her forehead holds a soft  almost transparent veil that frames her face; a second transparent veil holds her hair across her cheeks; the black beaded necklace is tightly wrapped around her neck, and left loosely over her chest, down to her lap, in a second turn. Her right hand gently touches the muscular and white ermine, which gazes in the same direction as her, in a twisting position towards her chest, but with its head turned to its left as well.

It is a portrait of sixteen-year old Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, a woman known to be young, beautiful and highly talented, in literature and music. The painting captures the entangled romantic narrative between them, as Ludovico, constrained by his wife, had asked Cecilia to leave the Court marrying her off to Lodovico Carminati de Brambilla, Count Bergamini.

The painting is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art and a masterpiece of Renaissance art; it is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa (1503-1506), Ginevra de’ Benci (1474-1478), and La Belle Ferronnière (c. 1490); Luke Syson (curator of 2011’s Da Vinci’s exhibition at the National Gallery London), called the work “the crown jewel of [da Vinci’s] very, very small surviving oeuvre”, adding that it is “one of the great milestones in the history of art.”.

It is a commissioned portrait by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza of his mistress Cecilia. The Duke remained Leonardo’s main patron for seventeen years (1482-1499), serving as his artist, architect and lead engineer, throughout Sforza’s military endeavours. Merely a few years after commissioning this work, the Duke commissioned the Last Supper, which would become another of Leonardo’s iconic masterpieces.

The black background is an alteration made by Countess Izabela (one of the paintings owners during the 19th Century) who also added La Belle Ferroniere along with Leonardo da Vinci written in Polish at the top left corner. The misapplied title is derived from the name of a reputed mistress of King Francis I, of whom Leonardo is believed to have painted a portrait. The original background is believed to have been of a lighter bluish grey color, and it is believed to have contained a window on the right side. This stark black background is speculated to have destroyed the subtleties of the woman’s silhouette, and delicate transitions of light.

aesthetic analysis

The way the ermine is captured, demonstrates Leonardo’s affinity for animals, revealing his knowledge of anatomy, motion and force. Because the animal is depicted in a way that is too large to be a realistic representation, the ermine is thought to symbolize various things. Firstly, the Greek name of the animal, ‘gale’, is also found in Cecilia’s surname. Another interpretation claims that the embrace of the ermine symbolizes the affair between the couple – as the Duke was organizing his marriage with another woman, Beatrice d’Este, by the time this was painted, accentuating the importance of their love for each other. This is greatly validated by the fact that the duke was nicknamed ‘the white ermine’. Another possibility is that the ermine is supposed to indicate pregnancy, as it is a symbol of virtue and purity (in common symbology), which is seen as representative of Cecilia’s fidelity to the Duke. This perspective and view is greatly accentuated by Leonardo’s drawing which is entitled ‘The Ermine as a Symbol of Purity’.

Acting as a complement to the muscular nature of the ermine, the delicate frame of the woman seems to act as a figure of virtue, with pale flesh, harmonious lines, in an understated yet elegant posture. Her hair is tucked back into a ponytail or a braid, which is intertwined with a ribbon and covered by a lacy fabric, known as coazzone. The same pose is used later in his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (1474-1478), where she is also depicted with her hair held back.The work exemplifies a great study of human anatomy, present in various details such as the woman’s delicate outstretched hand over the ermine. Her clothing reveals that she is not a noble.

The Mirror Image: The juxtaposition of feminine and masculine echo throughout the entire iconography and symbology, resulting in an analogy of the relationship of the two lovers. The ermine’s musculature reflects the masculinity of its owner, the Duke, a quality that is transferred to the Renaissance symbology of the colour red in Cecilia’s dress (with masculine connotations). On the other hand, the sophistication of Cecilia’s pose, alongside the contemporary symbology of blue, are clear indicatives of the female connotations in the painting. These two opposing concepts unite, both literally and metaphorically, through the juxtaposition of the colours, embrace-like poses between the lady and the ermine, and culminate in the fact that they both are looking in the same direction.

As in many of Leonardo’s paintings, the composition is defined by a pyramidal spiral, with the sitter caught in motion turning to her left; this motion reflects Leonardo’s fascination with movement. The pyramidal structure can also be found in works such as Madonna with a Carnation (1479), The Virgin of the Rocks (c.1484), Salvator Mundi (c. 1500), Mona Lisa (1503-1506) and Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1503-1519).

Pyramidal structure analysis

The painting clearly possesses a ‘three part’ composition, greatly illustrated by the rule of thirds grid analysis: the central part, where the portrait of the Cecilia and the ermine fit perfectly, is the main focal point of work, using light and softer tones; whereas the other two parts are characterized by darkness.

Rule of thirds grid analysis, clearly denotes the ‘three’ part separation.

Developed rule of thirds grid analysis, clarifying the harmonious geometry.

In the more developed rule of thirds compositional grid, it becomes clear that various focal points of the painting fall on the intersection of some of the reference lines. It is of reference, the hand, the corner of the eye (that coincides with the vertical mid-line and the diagonals), and knuckle of the finger, and/or the collarbone. 

Golden ratio analysis.

In this study, we can see multiple points in common with the Golden Ratio. The spiral starts out from her right eye, overlapping its corner, to her nose, round over to her shoulder, and finally intersecting at both her knuckle and and the ermine’s paw.

Colour scheme.

Leonardo used oil and walnut wood (a preferred surface to work on) of about 5mm thick,  covered with a coat of white gesso and then coated with an underpainting layer of a brown tone. The underpainting is likely to have been tonal similar to that which can be seen in the painting The Adoration of the Maggi (1480-1482), orchestrating a preparatory drawing most likely delineated in charcoal; this underpainting has been revealed by x-ray and microscopic examinations of the painting, and reflects the techniques Leonardo learnt in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), his teacher. The work exemplifies Leonardo’s most common techniques including the chiaroscuro technique (particular use of shadow and light), the sfumato technique (creating gradual tonal shifts) and his hesitant (dispersed, flickering, unsure) painting progress (as Leonardo was constantly re-evaluating and often changed his mind, erased and added slight things).  The studies conducted by the french scientist Pascal Cotte elucidate three clear different stages of creation: a grey ermine was added to the composition in a second phase, and in the third stage this grey ermine was transformed into a large muscled white ermine. Martin Kemp accentuates the importance of this revelation, not only technically but also in terms of its significance, shedding light into Da Vinci’s evolving thought process and to the importance given to the ermine. Besides Leonardo painting process, the progressive progression might also indicate the Duke’s desire for a more revealing and suggestive ‘portrait’. Interestingly, various contemporary surface analysis reveal that Leonardo used his fingerprints to blend the brushwork and create a smooth surface, suggesting that finger dabbing was part of the process of the sfumato technique.

The Adoration of the Maggi (1480-1482)

The portrait is a prime example of multiple innovations. The use of oil paint was a fundamental and pivotal innovation, as it had only been introduced in the 1470’s. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of Leonardo’s many innovations, a choice that was greatly unconventional for portraiture, and which suggested motion and movement of the sitter. When analysed as a whole, all four portraits seem to convey mystifying qualities of the unreadable women, a great innovation, which introduced qualities of mystery, emotional depth, and psychological drama to the standard descriptive nature of portraiture of the time.

Leonardo was greatly influenced by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), his teacher, who greatly shaped the way Leonardo created, especially in technique. Among his works, only four portraits of women exist. This particular one is the first, and served as a base which would greatly influence all of the following three paintings, including Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1506).


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painting details

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