Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

The National Museum of Fine Arts Santiago (Chile)
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

La Fortuna/Fortune, unknown Flemish painter, 16th-17th century
Oil on canvas, 220,5 x 183 cm


By Courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

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The allegorical image of Fortune comes from the Collection of Prince Wittgenstein who sent a number of paintings from his private collection to Chile during the Second World War to keep them safe from the turmoil of war. Later, in 1960, the representative of the collector offered the paintings for sale to the National Museum of Fine Arts. Eventually, the collection was bought and donated to the Museum in 1962 by the Braden Copper Company, the North American controller of the Chilean copper mine El Teniente.

Among the works from the Wittgenstein collection stands out this master work of Flemish school, La Fortuna, probably from the 16th or 17th century. The piece depicts a pagan goddess of changing luck. This allegory was one of the favorite iconographic motives among Italian and Northern painters of Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods. Here, it appears in a maritime guise, as described in the “Odes” of Horace – the “Mistress of Ocean” dreaded by the sailors. Therefore, we see her represented as a naked oversized deity standing on a globe – one of the main attributes of Fortune, the symbol of chance and luck. Above her head, she holds a red sail filled with wind, symbolizing the unpredictable character of the personification. The figure of Fortune divides the composition (and consequently the whole world) in two halves, separating the blessed by chance from the doomed. On her left side, feasts the prosperous, happy sport and ships return safety ashore, but on the right, the storm floods the boats and drowns their crew while at the coast an unfortunate farmer loses his life to the soldiers sacking the village.

The personification of Fortune has its roots in ancient myths and was a recurrent allegory in the Middle Ages. However, it was not until the 15thand 16th centuries that it gained a special significance in relation to the expansionary politics of Charles V. In this context, the representation of Fortune originating from the image of Isis, the antique Egyptian goddess of health and wisdom, described as Pharia or Pelagia – the guardian of the seas and the sailors – transforms into Venus-Fortuna. On the contrary to the image of the Medieval Fortune with the wheel in relation to which man always stays passive and subject to the changing luck, the Renaissance personification of the marine Fortune with the sail opens the possibility of choosing one’s destiny. Following the interpretation of Aby Warburg, this new Fortune symbolizes humans’ freedom from the tyranny of destiny that emerged in the Renaissance society. The belief and trust in the favor of Fortune resulted in European 15th-century naval expansion and, eventually, the discovery and conquest of the New World.

Text: Departamento Colecciones MNBA