Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Barbara Longhi, Italian Renaissance Painter

Barbara Longhi (died 23 December 1638)


Although she lived--and presumably painted--until she was eighty-six years old, only fifteen surviving paintings are definitely attributed to Barbara Longhi.

Barbara Longhi,
St. Catherine of Alexandria,
presumed to be a self-portrait
Born in Ravenna in 1552, Barbara Longhi was trained by her father, the painter Luca Longhi. Very little is known about her life, though she is one of the few women mentioned, however briefly, in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times (Le Vite de' piĆ¹ eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri). 

Noting that he had met Luca Longhi while he was in Ravenna--and concluding, somewhat disparagingly, that Luca would have "become a very rare painter" if only he had "gone forth from Ravenna," where he "has always lived and still lives with his family"--Vasari adds, "a daughter of his, still a little girl, called draws very well, and has begun to do some work in colour with no little grace and excellence of manner."

Madonna and Child,
c. 1580-85,
Indianapolis Museum of Art
In addition to painting, Barbara Longhi seems to have worked diligently in her father's studio at least until his death in 1580--she was used as a model in her father's works, she assisted him in the workshop, she copied many of his paintings, and she would also have learned how to market her work to patrons. 

Vasari's observation that Luca Longhi's achievements may have been affected by his provincial location are echoed in Germaine Greer's assessment of his daughter's work. "Barbara's output was considerable," she notes, "all small pictures, remarkable for their purity of line and soft brilliance of colour." 

But the relationship of her work to her father's is "horribly muddled," and, in Greer's words, she is a "backward member of a provincial school." Her "picture-making" is "extremely conservative," though demonstrating "a simplicity and intensity of feeling quite beyond her mannerist father and her dilettante brother."

Although the poet and playwright Muzio Manfredi, himself born in Ravenna, would indicate in a 1575 lecture that Barbara Longhi was renowned for her portraits, most of the paintings attributed to her today are small depictions of the Madonna and child.

Madonna and Child with St. Joseph and St. Anne

Update, 30 July 2021: Liana de Girolami Cheney, Emerita Professor of Art History, University of Massachusetts, Lowell (among other academic titles) writes that she is completing a book on Barbara Longhi, to be published in fall 2021. She also says, "I wrote a pioneer article in English of this female painter": Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Barbara Longhi of Ravenna,” Woman’s Art Journal (Spring 1988), 16-21." 

I will add that Professor Cheney has published widely--here's a link to her Amazon author page. If you are reading this blog, you may be particularly interested in her book on the work of the painter Lavinia Fontana.

I have taken the opportunity offered by adding this note to to update my original post, adding a link to an English translation of Vasari and to Vasari's assessment of Barbara Longhi.