Lady With an Ermine: Leonardo’s Interaction With Light & Optics

Lady with an Ermine is a 15th century masterpiece by Leonardo representing his excellent symbolism, modern portraiture and techniques to impose role of light in paintings.

Lady with an Ermine

Sometimes, I feel no matter how many words I put in the articles describing Leonardo da Vinci and his excellent works, there will always be something left behind. I have already explained to you what he was and what he accomplished as an anatomist, as well as how he was able to create the sfumato technique and some of his paintings, such as Virgin of the Rocks, The Last Supper, and Battle of Aghliari, but there are still thousands of pages left which tells about his life and work. As you can imagine, understanding Leonardo da Vinci’s work, observing the inventions he made, and then writing about them is both thrilling and incredibly time-consuming, as there are many things, and I try that nothing must be left behind. And out of all his works, the finest and most exhilarating painting is Lady with an Ermine, which I like even more than the Mona Lisa. But there is obviously a reason behind them, which I am going to tell you in this article. First things first, let me introduce you to one of his discoveries. In the earlier studies of Leonardo on the human eye and optics, he noted,

“The pupil of the eye dilates and contracts as it sees a less or greater light.”

It simply meant he clearly observed how the change in pupil size takes a few moments, as it adjusts to the light. However, he incorrectly believed that both the pupils of the eyes dilate separately, which is not right, as they dilate in unison. Now, it is time we start analyzing Lady with an Ermine painting and understanding more. 

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist Statement.

“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

2. Subject Matter.

The painting is a stunning and innovative masterpiece and is one of the most delightful and charming of Leonardo’s works. The artwork is so emotionally charged and alive that it entirely changed the art of portraiture for eternity. John Pope Hennessy, a twentieth-century art historian, called it the,

“first modern portrait,”


“the first painting in European art to introduce the idea that a portrait may express the sitter’s thoughts through posture and gestures.”

Lady with an Ermine comprises a three-quarter view lady, with her body turned out to our left, but her face snapped to the right, as if she is looking at something. Exceedingly alive, she has a mysterious smile while she holds an ermine, which has a symbolism. To understand the entire subject matter, you have to wait for a little more time.

Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci

3. Artist.

Leonardo da Vinci, a genius artist whose curiosity and excellence stirred the art world around him, painted the Lady with an Ermine. From finding whale fossils in his earlier life to seeing himself coming out of a cave, to learning optics, light, engineering, anatomy, and architecture, Leonardo put everything into his art, which he learned from his life and is practically impossible for any other artist to portray. The fact that he was able to see patterns in nature at the same time while blending together nature and the universe made him one of the most outstanding artists in history.

He became the archetype of the Renaissance man, an inspiration to the generations who believed in the infinite works of nature and the unity filled with marvelous patterns.

4. Date.

The Lady with an Ermine painting dates back to the 1489–90.

5. Provenance.

Before we learn the entire provenance, which is obviously in detail, let me introduce a sonnet by the court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, who celebrated this portrait with his usual oratund exuberance.

“Why are you angry?
whom do you envy,
Vinci, who has portrayed
one of your stars;
Cecilia, now so beautiful, 
is she
Whose lovely eyes cast the sun into dim
He’s made her seem to
lister, but not to
Therefore you may now 
thank Ludovico,
And the genius and skill
of Leonardo,
Who wants her to belong
to posterity.”

– Bernardo Bellincioni

In addition to his role in court as an impresario, Leonardo had just begun work on the horse monument when he was assigned the painting. It was seven years when he was in Milan. And Ludovico commissioned him to paint it for her mistress, Cecilia when she gave birth to his son. I will tell you the entire background and story in the latter sections.

6. Location.

Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci resides in the National Museum and Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland.

7. Technique and Medium.

Leonardo made the portrait of Cecilia with oil on a walnut panel. He used his optics studies to reflect the beam of light on the subject. The greatest intensity of light, as the artist demonstrated in his studies occurs when a beam hits a surface head-on rather than at an oblique angle. He used this same theory, reflecting light on the top of Cecilia’s left shoulder and right cheek. Then, furthermore, he used a different proportion of light on her face as the light intensities varied at various angles of incidence. Hence, he added a three-dimensional illusion in the painting through an understanding of optics.

ArtistLeonardo da Vinci
Year Painted1489-90
GenreModern Portraiture
MediumOil on walnut panel
Dimensions54 x 39 cm (21 x 15 in)
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?National Museum and Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland

As you understand an overview of the painting, let us learn it in detail for the entire information. 

In-Depth Description of Lady With an Ermine.

Artist Synopsis: Leonardo da Vinci

Through a series of articles, I have narrated to you stories of the life of Leonardo. Today, as we understand the specialty and exclusivity of the Lady with an Ermine painting, let me tell you in a few words about the artist’s life before this commission. 

Leonardo first came to Milan in 1482. He wanted to work as a military and civil engineer, as he proposed in his letter to the de facto duke, Ludovico. However, it never happened as Leonardo majorly worked for the court throughout the decade as the sculptor of the unfinished horse monument and consultant of church designs. But his primary talent always remained that of a painter, whether, he lived in Florence in his later days or France in his final days. For his first few years in Milan, he shared a studio with the Ambrogio de Predis, one of Ludovico’s favorite portrait artists, who was deaf and did not speak. And through him, he observed the nature of human gestures and thoughts as the deaf would communicate with these gestures.

“Let your fingers have actions appropriate to what they are intended to think or say, and these will be well learned by imitating the deaf, who by the motion of their hands, eyes, eyebrows, and the whole body, endeavor to express the sentiments of their mind.”

And few months later, he worked with the Predis brothers on his finest painting, Virgin of the Rocks. Previously, I told you about the history and background of the painting, Virgin of the Rocks and his life throughout the commission.

Madonna of the Rocks by Da Vinci

Now, you must know that to make money at times, Leonardo would help his apprentices to produce pieces as if on an assembly line. He would create compositions, cartoons, studies, and sketches and then his students would work together to finish the painting. And Leonardo would add his touches, making corrections to them. One of the visitors described how,

“two of Leonardo’s pupils were doing some portraits, and he from time to time put a touch on them.”

Historical Background of Lady With an Ermine Painting.

Before I tell you under what circumstances, Leonardo painted the artwork, let me first introduce you to the subject and why the painting was thought to be made by the artist.

Who was Cecilia Gallerani?

Cecilia Gallerani is the subject of the portrait. The striking beauty was born in Milan’s educated middle-class family where her father was a diplomat and financial agent for the duke, and her mother belonged to a noted law professor’s family. When she was seven, her father died, and his inheritance got distributed to her six brothers. Cecilia composed poetry, delivered orations, and wrote letters in Latin and would become an inspiration for the two novels by Matteo Bandello. 

The Story Behind the Painting.

In 1483, when she was just ten, her brothers arranged her marriage with a much-reputed family of Giovanni Stefano Visconti, who once ruled Milan. However, after four years, the contract was dissolved as the brothers were not able to keep up with the decided dowry payments. But this dissolution of marriage noted that the marriage had not been consummated, protecting her virtue. Around the same time, Ludovico Sforza noticed her beauty. He was then attracted to her for her mind and beauty. By 1489, she was fifteen, but she didn’t live with her family now but in rooms provided by the Ludovico. The following year, she was pregnant with his child. However, one of the biggest problems in their relationship was that Ludovico was contracted to marry the daughter of Ercole d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, Beatrice d’Este. This arrangement of marriage would represent a major alliance for Ludovico as it was with the ancient noble dynasty of Italy. But he was enamored with Cecilia, and it was unenthusiastic. In the late 1490s, the ambassador of the Duke of Ferrara sent a candid report saying,

“He (Ludovico) keeps her with him at the castle, and wherever he goes and wants to give her everything. She is pregnant, and as beautiful as a flower, and often he brings me with him to visit her.”

After this report about Ludovico, his marriage with Beatrice was delayed, but it finally occurred the following year. In his later years, he would eventually be deeply bereaved with her at the time she died. However, in the initial years, he would keep his relationship with Cecilia. And in those days before the pretense of sexual discretion, Ludovico continued confiding his feelings about her to anyone. Ludovico told the ambassador that,

“he wished he could go and make love to Cecilia and be with her in peace, and this was what his wife wanted too because she did not want to submit to him.”

Soon, Cecilia gave birth to their son, and there was a fulsome celebration of the event. However, we see that Ludovico eventually arranged her marriage with a wealthy count, and she settled into the life of a respected literary patron. At this time, as a gift for her deliverance of a boy to the Duke, he commissioned Leonardo to paint her portrait. 

Lady with an Ermine was the first assignment of Leonardo, who was in Milan for seven years. 

Now, that you have the entire background of the painting, let us move towards the following sections to explore the inventiveness of Leonardo on it.

Subject Matter.

The painting, instead of a traditional portrait, shows a three-quarters view with the body of the subject turned to left, but her head turned to right towards the light. She holds an ermine, who is gone on an alert, as his ears cocked. In addition to being exceptionally alive, Leonardo’s portrait is also devoid of the vacant gaze found in other portraits of this period, including Ginevra de’ Benci (the only portraiture, Leonardo painted of a woman previously).

In the artwork, Leonardo has not only captured the timeless beauty of Cecilia but an entire narrative contained in an instant, one involving outward lives and inner lives. Through the posture of hands, eyes, and a mysterious smile, there are motions of body and mind, both. 

As the painting includes an ermine, Leonardo portrayed it with a twisting head and body, in the form of contrapposto, a signature style of Leonardo, which he also portrayed in the Angel of the Virgin of the Rocks. As Cecilia moves, the ermine mimics her movements, spiraling in sync with her. An ermine and Cecilia’s wrists are gently cocked, protectively. It shows a shared vitality as if both of them are not merely characters in the picture but also a part of the scene in real life. As both enjoy their company, a third participant in the form of light, probably Ludovico, caught their attention.

One of the significant things to note is that Leonardo was studying the theories of mind functioning during this time. And probably, there was a lot going on in the mind of Cecilia, which we can even see in this painting. To witness this thing, look at Cecilia at different times, and you will feel hundreds of emotions in her. For instance, at first glance, I see her awaiting to see her lover through the light. Then again, I see her happiness, and that same feeling is true for her ermine.

Cecilia Gallerani

Next, if we look at the details of the subject, we see Leonardo achieved perfection here. He took exquisite care with each detail handling, from the knuckles of Cecilia’s hand to her braided and gauze-veiled hair. When Isabella of Aragon married the hapless Gian Galeazzo Sforza in 1489, the coiffure and its sheathing, known as coazzone, and the Spanish-style dress, became fashionable. If one looks at the light coming toward the face of Cecilia, it is somewhat softer, and one can see the shadows easily. The features of Cecilia are softer, as if there are no boundaries. Maybe Leonardo started his journey to invent his famous sfumato technique, which is best seen in Mona Lisa.

Reflected or secondary radiance, however, softens some shadows. Under the cheek of Cecilia, the shadow is softened by light reflected from her chest, and the lower edge of her right-hand catches a glow from the ermine’s white fur. Leonardo explains,

“When the arms cross in front of the breast,” and “you should show, between the shadow cast by the arms of the breast and the shadow on the arms themselves, a little light seeming to fall through a space between the breast and the arms; and the more you wish the arm to look detached from the breast the broader you must make the light.”

One last thing worthy to notice is that the pupils of Cecilia dilate as the eyes witness the incoming light.

Now, coming to the ermine, Leonardo used the furry head of it with the marvel of modeling. It is rendered with such perfection that there is a three-dimensional clarity as light strikes each strand of the fur.

Symbolism of Ermine.

A white ermine is a symbol of purity. Leonardo once wrote in his bestiary entry,

“The ermine would die rather than soil itself.”

He further added,

“The ermine, out of moderation, never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.”

Hence, Leonardo makes a classic visual symbolism through the presence of ermine in the Lady with an Ermine.

Furthermore, the ermine symbolizes Ludovico, who had been bestowed with the Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples, leading a court poet to characterize him as,

“the Italian moor, the white ermine.” 

Learning Lady With an Ermine Analysis.

1. Line.

The stare gaze of Cecilia is horizontal, representing stability as she sees her lover, Ludovico coming from the direction of light. Leonardo paints the curved shoulders to depict the femininity of the subject. Furthermore, the ermine face is in a diagonal direction, showcasing the motion of mind and body in the painting. Even one of the paws of the ermine is in a diagonal direction. It must be also noted that the ermine body is also in a circular curve, going harmoniously with the body of Cecilia.

Lady with an Ermine Analysis

2. Light and Value.

Leonardo uses an adequate amount of light and shadows on the face of Cecilia with the help of his optics study. For instance, there is a shadow underneath her nostrils. Similarly, the lower edge of her right hand catches the glow from the ermine’s white fur. But one must notice that every light and shadow is softened by reflected or secondary radiance. This is due to his observation. He explains,

“An object will display the greatest difference of light and shade when it is seen in the strongest light… But this should not be much used in painting, because the works would be crude and ungraceful. An object seen in moderate light displays little difference in its light and shade, and this is the case towards evening or when the day is cloudy; works painted then are tender, and every kind of face becomes graceful. Thus, in everything extremes are to be avoided: Too much light gives crudeness; too little prevents our seeing.”

3. Color Analysis.

In this work, the artist has deliberately used a soft blend of pale tones and reds, contrasting with the hard bead that catches spots of lustrous light. He carefully uses subtle color contrasts, even in the Spanish dress of Cecilia with the white fur of the ermine.

Latest Discoveries.

Till now, we thought that Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci was an integrated composition that always included a white ermine, but the three-year-long investigation of Engineer Pascal Cotte revealed that this was not the case. He used reflective light technology to analyze Lady with an Ermine.

Leonardo painted it in three differentiated stages. The first version included no animal. Then, in the second and final stage, the animal transformed into a large white ermine.

Lady with an Ermine LAM Technique study

Mr Cotte said,

“The LAM technique gives us the capability to peel the painting like an onion, removing the surface to see what’s happening inside and behind the different layers of paint.”

“We’ve discovered that Leonardo is always changing his mind. This is someone who hesitates – he erases things, he adds things, and he changes his mind again and again.”

Martin Kemp, a professor of history of art at Oxford University, explains,

“It tells us a lot more about the way Leonardo’s mind worked when he was doing a painting. It helps explain why he had so much difficulty finishing paintings,”

Final Words.

Lady with an Ermine by Da Vinci is not just a portrait but a psychological work by Leonardo, which captures the sense of an inner mind at work. The viewer can see the emotions of the subject clearly through the look of her eyes, the enigma of her smile, and the erotic way she clutches and caresses the ermine. Leonardo portrayed most of her emotions and inner thoughts, which no artist had ever done in a portrait before him. Truly, it is a masterpiece!


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacton.

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