Art Detective Jane Fortune: Rediscovering History’s Forgotten Female Artists

Jane Fortune

Born on August 7, 1942 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Jane Fortune was an author, journalist, and philanthropist best known for her advocacy for women artists throughout history. Fortune’s quest to rediscover forgotten female artists began around 2003 when she came across a book on the self-taught Italian artist Plautilla Nelli at a used book fair.

Jane Fortune:

Jane Fortune at her desk. Advancing Women Artists Foundation.

Forgotten Female Artist Plautilla Nelli

Considered Florence’s first female painter, Plautilla Nelli was a Dominican nun who led an all-female art workshop out of her convent. For a woman to become a professional artist during the Renaissance was no easy feat: women couldn’t attend formal classes, they couldn’t study anatomy, and they couldn’t be paid for their work. Those who became nuns, however, had a unique opportunity. Convents in the Renaissance were vibrant creative centers where nuns were encouraged to practice writing, music, and painting.

Much to Fortune’s surprise, Plautilla Nelli was fairly unknown even among Florentines. When Fortune finally localized Lamentation with Saints, one of Nelli’s paintings she had read about, she was appalled to see it hanging lusterless and full of dirt. Furthermore, when removed from the wall the painting was crawling with woodworms.

Jane Fortune:

Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, 16th century, San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy. Detail.

The Advancing Women Artists Foundation

In 2009, Fortune founded the American non-profit organization, Advancing Women Artists Foundation, which would succeed in providing the answer to her guiding question.

If nobody knew who Nelli was, then how many other women artists were out there?

Jane Fortune

Plautilla Nelli’s Lamentation with Saints was the first of thousands of pieces Jane Fortune would discover, using a map of Florence as her very own treasure hunt. Countless paintings made by the hands of women had been silently hiding away, some for centuries, in damp churches, crowded attics, and decaying storage spaces in and around Florence. The pieces Fortune and her foundation rescued, once magnificent and grandiose, were found lifeless as the surroundings they had been rotting in.

Jane Fortune:

Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, 16th Century, San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy. Detail. The Florentine.

The common thread? They were all artworks by women artists who had come to Florence to perfect their skills throughout history. Among them were Irene Parenti Duclos, Violante Ferroni, Élisabeth Chaplin, Amelia Peláez, and even Artemisia Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s David and Bathsheba (c.1650) was discovered by Fortune in 2008 in the attic of Florence’s Pitti Palace. It had been kept in storage for 373 years! When it was found, rain was dripping onto it from a hole in the roof, causing notable damage.

Jane Fortune:

Artemisia Gentileschi, David and Bathsheba, c. 1650. Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy. Advancing Women Artists Foundation.


Jane Fortune and her foundation also raised funds for the restoration of these pieces. However, they included the condition that after being cleaned and repaired the pieces be put on permanent display. After passing through the hands of an all-female team of museum directors, art historians, and conservators, the works were transferred to museums where they were placed in the spotlight for all to see.

Jane Fortune:

Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, 16th century, San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy. Advancing Women Artists Foundation.

With Fortune at the helm, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation identified over 2,500 works in storage throughout Tuscany by women artists spanning five centuries, and it restored more than 70 of them. When asked what inspired her to specifically champion female artists of the Renaissance, Fortune explained:

There’s a whole gap in history that’s missing. If you read all the books then you’ll believe it was only men who did it.

Jane Fortune

Jane Fortune:

Conservators working on Violante Ferroni’s Saint John of God Heals Plague Victims (1756). Francesco Cacchiani.

A National Hero

The Italian press gave Fortune the affectionate nickname “Indiana Jane.” Like a detective, she successfully uncovered thousands of real-life treasures that had been gathering dust for centuries. In 2009, Fortune won an Emmy for a documentary based on her book, Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence. In 2015, she was presented with Florence’s highest award, the Fiorino d’Oro, making her an honorary citizen of the Tuscan city she so loved. Jane Fortune died on September 23, 2018, leaving behind not only her monumental legacy but also countless works by women who, thanks to her, finally claimed their rightful place in history.

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