Why a 15th Century Portrait of a German Noblewoman Depicts Her With a Fly on Her Head

Francesca Whitlum-Cooper of the National Gallery in London takes a look at a historical portrait of a German noblewoman from the 15th century who was memorialized in perpetuity with a fly on her head.

Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings 1600–1800, investigates this portrait’s unusual addition.

Whitlum-Cooper notes all the amazing details of the portrait, the importance of the forget-me-not flower in her hand, and the class symbolism in regard to what the woman is wearing. She adds that the addition of the fly is a joke played by the artist, a highly believable trompe l’oeil that fools both the viewer and the fly itself.

Why has this artist included a fly on this lovely-looking lady’s head? I think the answer is it’s a joke and it’s a joke that works on different levels because on the one hand the fly has been tricked into thinking this is a real headdress, so the fly’s come and landed on it thinking it’s real… but obviously, there’s a double joke because we’re looking at it think ‘oh my gosh, there’s a fly on that painting’…

Whitlum-Cooper also believes that the subject of the painting was in on the joke in part, due to the slight smile on her face.

I think she must have been in on this joke because there’s no way an artist just kind of sticks a fly in there without her knowing about it …I love that because I look at her and I look at these slightly upturning lips and I look at the fly and I think she must have been in on that. …She must have had, when this portrait was finished, a sense of pride not only about how it captured how she looks, but also that it was going to trick people.