Why Does This Lady Have a Fly on Her Head?: A Curious Look at a 15th-Century Portrait

In the Nation­al Gallery there hangs a por­trait of an unknown woman, paint­ed by an unknown artist around 1470 some­where in south­west­ern Ger­many. This may sound like an art­work of lit­tle note, but it does boast one high­ly con­spic­u­ous mark of dis­tinc­tion: a house­fly. It’s not that the por­traitist was in such thrall to real­ism that he includ­ed an insect that hap­pened to drop into the sit­ting; at first glance, the fly looks as if it belongs to our real­i­ty, and has alight­ed on the can­vas itself.  Why would a painter, pre­sum­ably com­mis­sioned at the con­sid­er­able expense of the sit­ter’s fam­i­ly, include such a seem­ing­ly bizarre detail? Nation­al Gallery cura­tor Francesca Whitlum-Coop­er offers answers in the video below.

“It’s a joke,” says Whitlum-Coop­er. “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,” fooled by the painter’s mas­tery of that most dif­fi­cult col­or for light and shad­ow, white.

“But obvi­ous­ly there’s a dou­ble joke, because we, look­ing at it, think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a fly on that paint­ing!’ ” It is our very instinct to shoo the bug away that tells us “we’ve been duped, because actu­al­ly, every­thing here is two-dimen­sion­al. This is just paint. And the skill of the artist is that they’ve been able to take that paint, and brush, and a bit of wood, and con­jure it into some­thing that feels so life­like, we do believe — even just for a sec­ond — that’s a fly sit­ting on that pic­ture.”

Five cen­turies lat­er the joke still works, though it could well be more than a joke. One the­o­ry put forth here and there in the com­ments holds that the fly func­tions as a reminder of imper­ma­nence, of decay, of mor­tal­i­ty. If so, it sug­gests that the sub­ject of this por­trait may already have been dead by the time of its paint­ing, a notion sup­port­ed by the sym­bol­ic weight of the for­get-me-nots in her hand. (One com­menter even argues that the artist is none oth­er than the famed Albrecht Dür­er, and that the woman depict­ed is his late moth­er.) Though it may not rank among the great works of art, this mys­te­ri­ous image nev­er­the­less shares with them the qual­i­ty of mul­ti­va­lence. The fly could be a gag, and it could be a memen­to mori — but why not both?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

19th-Cen­tu­ry Skele­ton Alarm Clock Remind­ed Peo­ple Dai­ly of the Short­ness of Life: An Intro­duc­tion to the Memen­to Mori

A Restored Ver­meer Paint­ing Reveals a Por­trait of a Cupid Hid­den for Over 350 Years

What Made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paint­ing

The Genius of Albrecht Dür­er Revealed in Four Self-Por­traits

What Makes the Mona Lisa a Great Paint­ing: A Deep Dive

Down­load 35,000 Works of Art from the Nation­al Gallery, Includ­ing Mas­ter­pieces by Van Gogh, Gau­guin, Rem­brandt & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • E says:

    Thanks for sum­ma­riz­ing in the text of the arti­cle — I want­ed to know the answer, but did­n’t want to wade through a whole video! I too assumed it had to do with imper­ma­nence, as a kind of memen­to mori. I had­n’t thought, though, that per­haps the sub­ject had already died by the time the painter was com­mis­sioned. That makes the choice of a fly all the more mor­bid.

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