Flora, Fauna, Fashion and 'A Lady with a Unicorn'

Cincinnati Art Museum

From a rare Raphael to the great masters of fashion, from exquisite nature photography to art-inspired floral displays, it’s one of the more diverse fall seasons in memory at the Cincinnati Art Museum. 

The diva is a mysterious blond-haired, blue-eyed early Renaissance woman making her first trip to the New World. The single painting exhibit, “Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” (October 3-January 3) epitomizes Raphael’s excellence in female portraiture during his Florentine period. And it’s a rare trip outside of Italy for the work. 

“The painting has been lent to European exhibitions, but this is the first time it’s coming to the United States,” says Anne Buening, coordinating curator for the exhibition. “We are very excited we are the first U.S. venue to show this painting.”     

The portrait is clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Buening says Raphael knew Da Vinci, had seen the Mona Lisa and had done studies of how she was placed in the portrait. There is no record of the woman’s identity, but it is obviously a wedding portrait of a noblewoman based on her clothing and jewelry. (There is speculation she was related to the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, with her similar fair features).

“Raphael was trying to adapt the format of the Mona Lisa into his form of portraiture,” Buening says. “He was trying to appeal to the noble families of Italy.”

The real detective story is that the painting wasn’t “discovered” until the late 1930s. Sometime in the late 17th century, Raphael’s portrait was painted over to resemble the popular saint, Catherine of Alexandria, with the lady given a heavy cloak covering the “indecent” bare shoulders of the original.  

For years scholars argued over the painting before it was confirmed to be a Raphael. “Many pointed out that St. Catherine had a Raphael face, similar to the face of the Madonnas he had done,”
Buening says. “Finally, new X-ray technology was used in the ’30s and it was realized there was a painting underneath. In 1936 the decision was made to take off the overpainting.”  

What had been St. Catherine’s symbol of a spiked wheel was revealed to actually be painted over a unicorn, known as a symbol of purity. And the mystery goes a little deeper since there is only speculation as to the woman’s identity. In 1959, further X-rays revealed Raphael had originally painted the woman holding a dog, which he replaced with a unicorn. Buening says art historians think that the woman’s family had broken several marriage contracts by the time Raphael was well into working on the painting, so perhaps he thought a dog – a symbol of loyalty would not be appropriate.  

In addition to the painting’s fascinating history, the lady herself certainly has her own Mona Lisa aura. 

“She is a very striking figure, very self-possessed. She stares out at you from the picture. There is a strong personality there,” Buening says. “And when you hear the history, there is a lot happening in this little painting.” 

Buening credits Esther Bell, the museum’s former curator of European paintings, drawings and sculpture for laying the groundwork to bring the painting to Cincinnati. Bell left for a similar position at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the Legion of Honor will be the only other U.S. stop for the Raphael work. 

“The Italian Ministry of Culture and the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture have been taking steps to promote Italian art in other countries,” Buening says. “They have been doing more single painting loans as a way to bring attention to lesser known Italian paintings.” 


Other fall exhibits at the museum include: 

Field Guide: Photographs by Jochen Lempert (Oct. 17-March 6) is the first major U.S. museum exhibit devoted to the German photographer. Lempert is a biologist turned photographer, bringing a scientific sensibility to his poetic appreciation of plants, animals and other natural beauty. Lempert has been praised for an observational eye that brings new splendor and meaning to what can be at first glance be simple photos – of a bug, a pigeon or a flower, for example. 

Lempert visited Cincinnati in May 2015 and made photographs at the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science and in our city’s parks. 

High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection (Nov. 7-Jan. 24) explores the notion that fashion is indeed art. 

Over the years, the Brooklyn Museum’s Department of Costumes and Textiles became one of the most important centers for the study of fashion. As a result, its holdings are rich in clothing by American designers and the great French couturiers. This exhibit, on tour from the Brooklyn collection, now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, traces the evolution of 20th century fashion design through gowns, dresses and accessories. One can see how the fashions worn by American women reflect the nation’s tastes and mores between 1910 and 1980, including influential designs from Chanel, Givenchy, Dior and Charles James. 

Additional attention is given to the pioneering generation of American women designers working in the 1930s through the 1950s, such as Bonnie Cashin, Elizabeth Hawes and Claire McCardell, and their male counterparts, including Norman Norell, Mainbocher and Gilbert Adrian. A significant selection of the sculptural gowns of British-born American designer, Charles James is a highlight and accompanied by animations that illuminate his construction techniques.

The eighth edition of Art in Bloom (Oct. 22-25) again will display the works of regional floral designers interpreting works from the museum’s permanent art collection. A committee selects the paintings to be used to inspire the floral artisans.

The biennial event features 70 vibrant displays from local garden clubs, professional designers, groups and individuals. The previous exhibitions brought almost 14,000 people to the museum for the event. Over four days, the public can participate in docent-led tours, special events, family-friendly activities, plus conversations and demonstrations by the arrangers.