Cecilia Gallerani was Ludovico Sforza's first mistress and Leonardo painted her in the form of Lady with an Ermine. Later, the Duke was to take another mistress, Lucrezia Crivelli, and she is thought to be the subject of this painting. An alternative suggestion, though less accepted, is that this painting is Isabella of Aragon.
This may, or may not be, Leonardo's work. The pose is stiff, which would be unusual for Leonardo, and the woman's features are thicker and heavier than those normally found in his portraits. Bernard Berenson once said of this portrait, "one would regret to have to accept this as Leonardo's own work." Those in favour of this being a genuine Leonardo point to the knotted ribbons on her shoulders and the cords around her neck which do resemble Leonardo's style.
It may be that this work was done by an apprentice, or Leonardo may have been forced to do some traditional Milanese courtly portraiture at the whim of his patron; tradition demanded an unnatural pose as shown in this painting. It also placed great importance on showy dresses, jewellery and other decorations, as shown in this work. Another possible answer is that this was a joint project carried out by several artists at the School of Leonardo, and based on a design by him.
Done around 1495 this painting takes its name from the ferroniere the sitter wears around her brow, a common Lombard fashion. In the nineteenth century this work was much admired and widely copied, though no other artist managed to capture the beautiful modelling of the face. It is thought the painting may have originally been balanced with an architectural element on the left but this is one work over which there are more questions than answers.