Two Portraits of Nanna

While I’d like to claim credit for thorough, meticulous planning of each and every art post I compose, I must confess that, in some cases, my post subjects have been discovered purely by accident. I’ll be searching for something when an unexpected image loads onto my computer screen. My curiosity is triggered. Oooh! What’s that?! I embark on an investigation, and an unplanned blog post is born.

I came across this stunning portrait by the English classical painter Lord Frederic Leighton that I had never seen before. My first thought was, “Who is the model?”. (As an artist’s model myself, that is usually my first thought). Some quick Googling produced the name Nanna Risi and, as always, there’s a story behind the the woman and the artists who painted her.

In 1858, Leighton was living and painting in Rome, where he met Nanna, a cobbler’s wife with dark hair and a smoldering gaze. She posed professionally as a model and sat for many of the expatriate artists working in Italy at the time. Leighton is generally known to dress up his models and use them to depict mythological or historical figures, consistent with classical tradition. But in the case of Nanna Risi, he painted her as herself. Apart from the showy peacock feathers, this portrait is of Nanna the woman, as Lord Leighton saw her:


Nanna Risi then met and posed for the German artist Anselm Feuerbach. While Leighton’s relationship with her was platonic, Feuerbach fell passionately in love with the Italian beauty. The feeling was mutual, and Nanna left her husband and child to be with him. Feuerbach painted Nanna’s portrait at least 20 times, often posing her with her head downcast, partially in shadow, a hand resting on a shoulder, wearing the jewelry, scarves, and garments he had given her. Strikes me as an effort to state his possession – his “ownership” – of his mistress.


It’s interesting to me that the artist who had a romantic relationship with the sitter painted a colder, more formal representation of her, while the platonic relationship produced a more winsome and engaging one. Feuerbach has Nanna draped in a ton of heavy fabric, contemplating in darkness, solemn and withdrawn. Leighton, in contrast, has her looking over her shoulder, gazing directly at the viewer in crisp light and beauty, wearing a white, airy peasant blouse. Feuerbach renders her as passive and isolated. Leighton depicts her as active and keenly present.

After five years, Nanna left Feuerbach for another man. Seems to have been a pattern with her. That relationship apparently didn’t work out either, and Nanna was left in a lonely destitute condition. Feuerbach later recognized her begging in the streets, poor and bedraggled. He did not stop to help her. I wonder if Lord Leighton would have lent a compassionate helping hand to his muse?

12 thoughts on “Two Portraits of Nanna

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for another interesting article – though a shame that it all ended up the same way as Augustus Egg’s Victorian morality triptych ‘Past and Present’. But in an era when the odds were stacked against women and the poor, no doubt the chances of a happy ending for Nanna were remote. The difference between the two portraits really is remarkable, even taking into account that they were different artists.

    The opening night party last weekend looked great 🙂

    • artmodel says:


      You raise such a great point, the societal/historical context of the Victorian Era’s less than magnanimous treatment of women. Not a lot of options back then, and without a husband or financial means the prospects were bleak.

      The opening night party was fun, thanks! WIsh I took better pictures, though.

      Good to hear from you, Jennifer!


  2. swatch says:

    Hey Claudia – thanks again for your research and insights. Man! Another tragedy. These artists, these models, such beauty, such skill, such tragedy. Ai! S

    • artmodel says:


      The tragedy and sadness of these stories gets to me too. For once, I want to write about a happy ending dammit!

      Glad you liked the post, and thanks for commenting.


  3. Thanks, C. Very glad you stumbled upon her and shared. I enjoyed the art much but I’ll resist any inclination I have to add to the social commentary about the era. 🙂

  4. Thanks Claudia, I wasn’t (too) worried about my comments being unwelcome.. It’s just it’s hard to comment on the mores and morals of an era in 200.000 words or less. -grin-

  5. Tom from Westport says:

    Hi, Claudia– I am an old friend of Jordan’s and this morning he emailed me you had posted nice photos from the opening, including one with my little girl and her friend, so I googled “Museworthy.”

    Yes, I liked the photos (it was hard to take pictures there for some reason with the light and as you said, glare off the works)– and it was fun to see my Emma online– can’t wait to show her. BUT what I wanted to tell you is how much I like your writing!

    I was fascinated by your observations about Nanna and the two artists platonic and possessive but not, and loved the piece on your Dad, Clifford Brown and “that other guy,” and am bookmarking your wonderful blog!

    I will read it a bit at a time as a counterpoint to all the business writing and news I digest most of the day. Like flowers in the desert I tell ya! Keep writing please!


    • artmodel says:


      Thank you, thank you!! I’m really glad Jordan told you about the post. I was wondering who those cute girls were. I hope Emma likes the picture 🙂

      I do wish I had taken better pictures, though. The atmosphere at Spring that night, with the lights and crowd, etc – were not conducive to good photography. I think i captured the mood of evening satisfactorily, though.

      I’m so delighted that you like what you’ve seen of Museworthy so far, especially the jazz post. And I’m thrilled that you will reading fairly regularly. I’m full of “Bookmarked” pride! And I will definitely keep writing, you can count on it 🙂

      Thanks again, Tom, and I appreciate your generous comments. Great to hear from you!


  6. LK says:

    I’ve been reading and rereading this since you’ve posted it, and I’m ever affected by the bedraggled demise of this woman. I’m just affected by the thought of her being in the street like that; maybesince I came so close myself I can relate, thus I feel some of her strife.

    This is also my most gracious reply to the note you left for me today, how impeccable your timing is, Claudia. I was feeling kind of rough when I got home–the new environment is good/bad, bad/good–and my mood instantly spiked by your dear words I thought I was going to break down! You are my angel.

    I’m muddling along over here, but getting there nevertheless, and such visits are cherished and contribute greatly to the sanctity (and sanity) of my restless voyage.

    Thank you sweetie, and I hope things are as awesome as ever for you,

    love Scott

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