As we look at this portrait of a woman with an elaborate white headdress, one of the first things that grabs our attention is the fact that there's a fly on the painting ... but upon closer inspection, the fly is IN the painting, or rather, the artist painted the fly as part of the portrait. What is going on here???
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The official title of this painting is Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, and it was painted around 1470 by an unknown artist from the "Swabian" area of Europe. Never heard of Swabia? In the middle ages, it covered an area including southern Germany, part of Switzerland, and part of France.
The painting is not signed, and has not been attributed to a specific artist. The woman in the portrait in not known either, other than she is from the Hofer Family, as indicated by the text in the top left corner, "Geborne Hoferin," which means "born a Hofer." Our guess would be that it was a wealthy family known in the Swabian region at the time. But don't you think the woman and/or family would be mad at this artist for painting her with a fly on her head? Scroll down below the picture for more information on why it might be there ...
The patrons who commissioned this portrait may have appreciated the presence of the fly, because it seems it might have been included as a symbolic element. Flies have been used in art as a symbol of mortality, and the woman is holding a "Forget-Me-Not" flower, so it could be possible that this artist is using these symbols as an expression of rememberance for this woman after she has died.
However, it has also been suggested that the artist added the fly looking as realistic as possible in order to puzzle the viewer, to make them wonder if a fly has landed on the painting. In this scenario, the artist may be showing off his skill in creating a three-dimensional image on a flat panel.
As you can see in this detail, the artist went to great lengths to make this fly look real. Note the shadow depicted to the right of the fly, giving it a sense of dimension. The artist has even painted shadows under each of the fly's legs!