Barbara Longhi was well known for her unique use of bright color and landscape backgrounds that were partially hidden behind drapes. Additionally in her works there is a warm relationship between the characters, in particularly between the Madonna and Child. In about 1600, Longhi seems to have abandoned full figured compositions in favor of more devotional and traditional images which reflect the religiousness of the then-occurring Counter Reformation.

Barbara Longhi was born in 1552 (the same year as Lavinia Fontana) in Ravenna, Italy. Barbara was very limited in where she could learn and work. Her father, Luca Longhi was a painter and a miniaturist working in a conservative, provincial style in the small coastal town of Ravenna. There are very few details about the life and work of Barbara Longhi, except that most of her paintings are depictions of the Madonna and Child, with her most famous being "Madonna and Child with John the Baptist." Barbara was not well-known as an artist outside of the area in which she lived.

Barbara assisted her father with large altarpieces and copied many of his works. Barbara's own work often resembled his, but, is on a much smaller scale. She was also obligated to contemporary style of Florentine and Bolognese painters. Of her 15 known works, 12 are small Madonna and Child compositions, which Giorgio Vasari praised for their "purity of line and soft brilliance of color".

Her early works are simple compositions, using a limited color palette and emphasizing linearity over modeling. Saint Catherine of Alexandria was painted for the monastery of Classe in Ravenna and is probably a self-portrait of the artist. Shortly after 1590 Barbara’s color became more brilliant, and her figures attained certain monument sized stature. She also began to employ the device of a curtain draped around a column and of an area opening out onto a landscape or sky in the background of her compositions. The sfumato technique and the pyramidal composition are reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci and of Raphael’s Florentine works.

After 1600 she seems to have abandoned full-figure compositions in architectural settings and chose to create simple religious images. "The Virgin with Sleeping Child", one of her most devotional paintings, avoids Mannerist pictorial riddles and concentrates on the viewer’s intimate relation to the figures depicted. As with most of her work, it reflects the intense religious ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

Germaine Greer comments on Barbara's work, saying:

"Her output was considerable, and her pictures, all small, are remarkable for their purity of line and soft brilliance of color intensity and feeling that is captured in these paintings, and how Longhi is able to make a beautiful statement in the uncluttered simplicity of her compositions. The warmth and subtlety of her rose-gold pallet.... has won for Barbara Longhi the esteem of connoisseurs.  Another of Longhi paintings shows a sweet child holding a crown for a reverent nun, the young mother carefully guiding her baby's hand, is quite a pleasing image."

 Barbara Longhi died in 1638. She left her mark on art history through her many works that she produced.

Her piece titled "Madonna and Child" can be viewed at:


For more information on other female artists that have contributed to art history, please check Lesser known female artists.


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