How women play an integral role in the pieces on display at the recently opened museum in Abu Dhabi.

The woman’s dark hair is parted in the middle, accented across the forehead by a delicate chain and jewel, and tied up in a low chignon in the back. Her outfit and adornments are stylish but not lavish, standard for both her station and stage in life.

The look on her face is hard to peg: she appears serene, if not a bit impatient, perhaps the slightest bit mischievous, and quite possibly throwing some of the earliest recorded side-eye to the left.

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La Belle Ferronnière, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s rare paintings also known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman, is one of the high-profile loans made to the new Louvre Abu Dhabi for its first year. She is also one of the many “Ladies of the Louvre Abu Dhabi” to look for when visiting the long awaited museum, which opened its doors to the public on November 11.


Featured throughout the 600 pieces shown in 55 buildings and 23 galleries under the museum’s massive white dome, 300 as part of the permanent collection, the women can be viewed in a variety of forms: painted in exquisite portraiture, formed in rough sculpture, encased in sarcophagi and through the lens of early photographs. More rarely in the past, but increasingly in modern times, they are the artists themselves.

La Belle Ferronniere, Leonardo da Vinci.

La Belle Ferronniere, Leonardo da Vinci.

Although there are many who believe the identity of the woman depicted in La Belle Ferronnière remains a mystery, Martin Kemp, professor of art history at University of Oxford, a Leonardo expert and author of the newly published book Mona Lisa: The People and The Painting, isn’t one of them.

Kemp believes the woman is Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress to Leonardo’s patron, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and mother to his son. The painting is one of only four portraits Leonardo painted of women, with the others being Lady with the Ermine, which depicts another of Sforza’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani; the Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de’ Benci and, of course, the Mona Lisa.

Kemp is reasonably assured La Belle Ferronnière is Crivelli, because there are poems that refer to the actual execution of the painting, and the date lines up: Leonardo lived in Milan from 1482 until 1499, and the painting was done sometime between 1490 and 1496. Most telling, however, is the way the woman is poised.

“There’s a very characteristic way that he paints the duke’s mistresses, rather than the members the court,” explains Kemp. “Members of the court, the high-ranking people, were always shown in profile. Interestingly when Leonardo came to portrait other women who obviously didn’t have that high aristocratic status, he went what I call ‘freestyle’.

The interior of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The interior of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

“He turned the figures towards you, he used their eyes and their mouths to communicate the nature of the subject. I think La Belle Ferronnière looks out in our direction but actually looks, if you trace it, slightly above eye line, so somebody of importance is being looked at who is more elevated than us.”

La Belle Ferronnière was the first artwork that the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the Musée du Louvre and Agence France-Muséums announced would be loaned to the Louvre Abu Dhabi from the Louvre in Paris during its first year in operation. The painting’s stay in Abu Dhabi, after a stint at the Milan Expo in 2015 followed by a restoration in Paris, not only marks the first time it has been outside Europe, but the first time a Leonardo has been shown anywhere in the Middle East.

“Any painting by Leonardo, in that we have under 20 surviving, is obviously an item of major interest,” says Kemp.

It had long been thought, Kemp points out, that perhaps the parapet in front of Crivelli, which was not a standard technique in Leonardo’s paintings, may have been added some time later. However examination at the Louvre during the restoration showed that not to be true.

Ayoucha whole figure.

Ayoucha whole figure.

“It’s interesting that the figure is set above a parapet, above that stone band along the bottom, which is unusual for Leonardo,” says Kemp. “But we know that he was aware of portraits by Venetian artists, particularly Giovanni Bellini. He sets his portraits very often behind a parapet, it’s a way of setting it up in space. It gives a kind of distance between us and the picture surface.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi provides a neat link between Leonardo and that painter whose technique he may have admired — or at least attempted to emulate — in Bellini’s Madonna and Child, an oil on panel painted between 1480 and 1485, acquired as part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection.

Considered the father of Renaissance painting, Bellini specialised in such devotional depictions. Yet while the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s painting is typically luminous, unlike many of his others that also feature landscapes, it offers only darkness in the background.

There is, however, a parapet, which in this case acts like an alter. The child sits on it, atop the Madonna’s scarlet robes, gazing up at her as she looks lovingly down on him, her hands in prayer position.

Another very important part of the permanent collection is Ayoucha whole fig[ure], the earliest known depiction of a veiled woman. The daguerreotype, which features a shimmery image captured in mercury on copper plate, shows the top two-thirds of a sturdy, broad-shouldered woman known as Cairene. She is clad in a thick abaya with heavy folds, staring into the camera from some distance. There is nothing else in the photograph.

The exterior of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The exterior of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The image was taken in 1843 Egypt, by the French artist and photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey when he was on a tour of the Middle East, and remained in his private archive until the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired it in 2011.

The early photography method Girault de Prangey used to capture Cairene was painstaking and expensive. It involves polishing a sheet of silver-plated copper, treating it with fumes to make the surface light-sensitive, then using mercury vapor to reveal the image. It was then treated, rinsed and sealed behind glass.

The result is ethereal, with the colors changing as it appears either positive or negative according to angle and lighting.

“It is an image that will become one of the icons of 19th century photography,” Laurence des Cars, the former curatorial director of Agence France-Muséums and now director of the Musée d’Orsay, told The National in 2013. “You are dealing with a very rare and fine example of a new technique in 19th century art.”

The American neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer is worlds away from the subject of Girault de Prangey’s postcard-sized Ayoucha, but her bespoke installation will also be featured under the same great canopy of the Louvre Abu Dhabi when it opens.

Alberto Giacometti's Standing Woman II, circa 1959-1960.

Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman II, circa 1959-1960.

Holzer’s piece is titled, aptly, For Louvre Abu Dhabi. Although she is often known for using light, most recently seen in her current exhibition, Softer, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Holzer’s Louvre Abu Dhabi piece features something much different. It has been reported that in it, she has used three stone walls to feature historical texts, some culled from the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s 1377 The Muqaddimah.

Roxane Zand, Sotheby’s deputy chairman for the Middle East, called the choice of Holzer “enlightened” and “inspiring.”

“That is extremely exciting, because in the conceptual world there aren’t that many women who are as successful as the level of Jenny Holzer, so that in itself is significant, that a female artist has been chosen,” says Zand. “Secondly, she’s at the forefront of her field and to have an American woman having a work there is a significant thing.”

Another female subject, on loan to Louvre Abu Dhabi from the Collection Centre Pompidou, is Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman II, circa 1959-1960. The Surrealist Swiss painter-sculptor’s figure, with its rough surface and elongated, emaciated frame, embodies one of his standard themes: the unclothed woman.

A search for meaning and truth is believed to have driven the obsessive artist, whose work was the subject of a major retrospective earlier this year at the Tate Modern. In a letter to an art dealer in his prime, he describes the depths plumbed during five years spent battling through a piece that he had thought would take mere weeks: “Nothing was as I imagined. A head, became for me an object completely unknown and without dimensions.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi at night.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi at night.

A woman is also among the stars of works from ancient Egypt that can be seen at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the form of an Egyptian funeral set for the princess Henuttawy, dating to the latter half of 10th century BCE.

The set includes three wooden coffins ­— two beautifully painted and preserved, the third in fragments – and her cocoon-protected body. Featuring the open eyes set in the typically expressionless gold face of the time, the exterior of Henuttaway’s set features another fascinating detail: perfectly aligned and erect gold hands with extraordinarily long and thin fingers.

When the acquisition was unveiled earlier this year, Jean-Francois Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, and head curator for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, told The National he expects Henuttawy to be a centrepiece not only of its Egyptian collection, but the museum as a whole.

“The great care and attention given to the delicate features of the princess’s face and her ‘living’ eyes still watching us across the millennia remind us of the identity of the deceased person, who was a Pharaoh’s daughter,” the curator explains.

In the permanent collection, an air of mystery and allure surrounds a distinctive, 4,000-year-old sculpture representing one of Central Asia’s earliest empires, located in modern-day Afghanistan. She is strangely beautiful, but also slightly alien: 25.3 centimeters in height, wearing a woven dress carved out of a soft, soap stone-style chlorite, her arms outstretched, handless, her ivory face almost mask-like, with curious, sharply oval eyes.



Having the Bactrian Princess places the Louvre Abu Dhabi among other world-class institutions, says Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, professor of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Harvard University department of anthropology. He estimates there are only about 20 in the world, with most all of the major museums in the world having one in their collection.

“They’re highly valuable,” he says. “We don’t know, of course, how many there are in private collections. If you want to deal with a comprehensive coverage of a bronze age civilisation, having one of those is a benchmark of the Bactrian civilisation. It’s a common aspect of a signature piece of that civilisation. It immediately identifies it as Bactrian.”

The piece holds much mystery for Dr Lamees Hamdan, the commissioner of the first United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and founder and creator of Shiffa.

“I’d like to know more historically about what kind of dress and beauty fabric they were using, did they have oils, did they have makeup, quote unquote, and where did they get it from? Did they get it from their place of origin?” she tells The Art Newspaper. “So just from that one item you can actually look into a whole society. It’s important for me, as a woman, to know and be interested in the roles of women, not only in society, and modern societies in different parts of the world, but also ancient civilisations in different parts of the world.”

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It is believed the Bactrian princesses were used as part of some sort of religious object, or in a ritual — perhaps a funeral.

“The burials that are found are really quite rich, they have pots, pieces of metal, things like that,” says Lamberg-Karlovsky. “And in those burials it seems that women have greater amounts of burial goods than men…So that leads to some individuals concluding that the status of women in the Bactrian civilsation was rather high, maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.”

Entry to the Louvre Abu Dhabi cost Dh60 for adults and Dh30 for those between the ages of 13 and 22, as well as UAE teachers. Members of the UAE loyalty programme, children under
13 and children with special needs are free.

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Images: Supplied
Words: Ann Marie McQueen