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In Lorenzo Lotto’s (c.1480–1556/7) Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, it is clear the sitter wants us to know how she feels about Lucretia, a young woman who had, according to legend hundreds of years old, been raped by a man with the unfortunate name Prince Sextus Tarquinius. Numerous accounts relay that Tarquin’s sole purpose was to prove all women were inherently unchaste and felt his point would be made by raping the morally upright Lucretia. The fact that she had refused his advances out of integrity was of scant consequence. Therein lies the legend’s pathos: irrespective of a woman’s perspective, she will be what the powerful male figure considers her to be.

Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia

Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia about 1530-2

Lorenzo Lotto (c.1480–1556/1557)

The National Gallery, London

Lucretia’s retort was fatal: she took her own life, proving that she’d sooner die than live after the violation that made her unchaste. Drama aside, the solidarity expressed by Lotto’s Lucretia (so many years after the legend occurred) is a testament to how gratingly offensive the story’s sentiments are to all women past and present.

In the age of Time’s Up and #MeToo, it is not uncommon for women to unite in their plight to be seen as more than objects and second-class citizens. Indeed, solidarity is a common term thrown into the mix of organised marches, motivational speeches and – dare I mention – Twitter rants. This is not a new phenomenon, either. That is to say, our most recent generations are not the first to have been drawn together in union over one cause or another – with the goal of supporting, defending, uplifting and, in some cases, even protecting one another.

Evidently, Lucretia’s story truly resonated with our contemporary Lucretia, who made her support clear in the text scrawled on a piece of paper resting on the table beside her.

For example, the Representation of the People Act (1928) was a direct result of the women’s suffrage movement. Yet, strip back the inevitable politics behind such events and what you are left with is the evidence of womankind standing up for womankind. So, too, with Lotto’s historically dubbed Lucretia, who went to great lengths to make her perspective known.

Commissioning a portrait was not cheap in the 1530s. To afford such a luxury would have required hailing from a wealthy family. The sole purpose of such a commission was to document one’s existence, using a compendium of beloved objects and ideas in a single image as a mode of immortalisation. Evidently, Lucretia’s story truly resonated with our contemporary Lucretia, who made her support clear in the text scrawled on a piece of paper resting on the table beside her. She can also be seen holding up a rendering of ancient Lucretia in her left hand, to which she points.

According to a 1998 article in The National Gallery’s technical bulletin on the painting, Lotto really toiled over that sketch of Lucretia (who is depicted nude, about to plunge a knife into her heart). Why was this the case? Perhaps the Venetian artist, who was celebrated for his portraits, was a perfectionist? Or maybe his sitter, intent on making her point clear, insisted on revisions of the nude figure?

Regardless of the reason behind such careful reworking, it is clear the figure was as central to the painting as the sitter herself. Thus, the two Lucretias continue to stand side by side, in solidarity.

Patricia Yaker Ekall, journalist

The painting Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia is part of the exhibition 'Lorenzo Lotto portraits' at The National Gallery from 5th November 2018 to 10th February 2019.

Lotto was not the only painter to portray the legendary Roman noblewoman. You can see other depictions of Lucretia on Art UK.