Sofonisba Anguissola

Italian Painter

Born: c.1532
Cremona, Italy
Died: November 16, 1625
Palermo, Sicily, Italy
[Sofonisba Anguissola] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavors at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings.

Summary of Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola was the first female artist of the Renaissance to achieve international fame during her lifetime. She had the ability to create life-like, sophisticated portraits that were intellectually engaging and flattering at the same time. She used self-portraits to promote and define herself, and she then turned this skill toward creating official portraits of the Spanish royal house that advertised their ability to rule.

She was described as a marvel of nature and her work as a marvel of art. Ironically, these descriptions both marked her as a strange anomaly and catapulted her to fame. She was also noted to be virtuous and beautiful, a superbly educated conversationalist, accomplished in music, and a charming dancer - all of which endeared her to the Spanish and Italian nobility and did not threaten the cultural norms about what women could or could not do. Nonetheless, she turned cultural limitations to her advantage, surpassing all expectations and becoming one of the most famous portraitists of her age.

Accomplishments

The Life of Sofonisba Anguissola

When Sofonisba Anguissola was 92, a young Anthony van Dyck painted her portrait and praised her mental aptitude - her renowned sharpness of mind had not depleted despite her advancing years. As the Dutch painter sketched her, they talked about art and the principles of painting and he later said this conversation taught him more about painting than any other episode in his life.

Progression of Art

c. 1555

Portrait of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess

Possibly Anguissola's most recognisable work, The Chess Game is an intimate insight into the domestic, female world of sixteenth century Italy. Three young girls can be seen playing chess in the foreground, while an older woman, perhaps the Anguissola family's maid, is sitting behind them and watching their game. On the left, the artist's younger sister, Elena, gazes calmly towards the viewer while her hands indicate that she has just defeated her sister who sits on the right. Minerva, with her hand raised in defeat and disbelief, gazes with parted lips at the conqueror. The youngest girl, Europa, stands beside Elena and grins cheekily at the despondent loser. Her laughing expression recalls the drawing of the laughing girl in Boy Bitten by a Crawfish that Michelangelo had so admired, and perhaps this was Anguissola's sly way of immortalising her praised work. The painter has masterfully captured the details in the elaborate clothing of her sisters, using her pigments to highlight the braids wrapped around their heads, or the ruffled collars under their chins.

Through her paintbrush Anguissola has transformed a mundane, everyday interaction between sisters into drama. She used the scene to depict a number of artistic genres and skills including landscapes, fabric textures, and the human face at different stages of life, perhaps to highlight the scope of her talent. The landscape and detail on the oak tree behind the girls display her skill at depicting flora, while the chessboard and table with its Turkish carpet that butts up against the frame and into the viewer's space is not only showcasing her power in depicting still life but also seems to have influenced the later painter, Caravaggio, who often used jutting elbows, table corners and dirty feet to protrude into his audience's space.

As a woman in Renaissance Italy, it was thought to be too indecent for her to study the naked human form from life, and so the grander historical paintings or Biblical portraits such as St Sebastian, Adam and Eve or the death of Caesar were considered too racy. Thus, many of Anguissola's earlier work focuses on family members and self-portraits. But, like in this case, the subject is often given an unexpected dimension: her sisters here play a game of skill and strategy that hints at their intellectual potential.

Oil on canvas - Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poland

1559

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola

In the dark artistic studio, Anguissola's first painting tutor, Bernadino Campi, appears to loom out of the shadows. He has turned to make eye contact with the viewer over his shoulder as he paints a large-scale portrait of his pupil, Anguissola Anguissola who is dressed in an elaborate, crimson gown with an open collar and gold trimming - a much more fashionable and expensive garment than the usual black gown that she wears in many of her other self-portraits. This is perhaps because for the first time, Anguissola has become the subject of her own painting. Rather than the usual stoic, studious, contemplative artist, Anguissola feels more able to depict herself as fashionable and jovial.

The illustration shows the painting mid-conservation, where there is a clear pentimento (that is, a portion of the painting that the artist herself covered up as she changed her mind about the composition). Importantly, Anguissola painted a second left arm onto her body, which reaches up and appears to merge with Campi's hand. Anguissola was unsatisfied with this composition, finding a subtle way to show that she was the original painter of the portrait, which the viewer can discern by the play between the painting inside the painting, the artist, and the viewer. The way in which both portraits are painted suggests that Anguissola was a better painter than her teacher. The composition suggests that Anguissola is standing outside of the picture frame, painting her teacher painting her. His face is naturalistic and engages the viewer in a lively way, while the painted Anguissola, presumably by Campi, is simplified and stiff. The way Anguissola has painted herself as bigger and brighter than Campi also suggests that she was demonstrating the superior quality of her art.

Oil on canvas - Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy

1561-65

Elisabeth of Valois

In this large state portrait, Anguissola has captured the likeness of the newly-married Elisabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain. Dressed in swaths of black cloth, which was the most expensive color due to the complex dying process, and decked in pearls and rubies from neck to the hem of the dress, Elisabeth shows herself to be a wealthy Renaissance queen. The open sleeves of her outer gown reveal the striped yellow sleeves underneath, and the expensive white silk lining of the outer garment. She wears a bejewelled coronet, necklace and girdle with precious stones while her hands bear numerous finger and thumb rings. In her right hand, she holds a miniature portrait of Philip II of Spain, her husband, which is a public display of love and affection for her new spouse even though it was probably Phillip who commissioned the portrait of his wife. Elisabeth leans against a large marble column which suggests that she is standing within a grand palace, which again hints at the couple's wealth, power and luxurious lifestyle.

In Renaissance and early-modern visual culture, the pearl had significant symbolism, especially for women. Therefore it is unsurprising to see the knotted strings of pearls decorating Elisabeth's gown. Pearls were thought to symbolise not only extreme wealth, but also female fertility, as the pearl was thought to be 'born' within the shell of oysters. Thus, in this state portrait the numerous pearls hint at the future children that Elisabeth will bear Phillip. Unfortunately, it would be her fourth pregnancy and second miscarriage which would end Elisabeth's short life.

Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain

1577-79

Portrait of Catalina Micaela of Spain

In this strikingly modern portrait of the young Spanish princess, Catalina Micaela of Spain, the daughter of King Philip II and Anguissola's friend, Queen Elisabeth of Valois, the girl looks out at the viewer from a sea of white and black. Around her neck and spilling down her front is the collar of a cape made of ermine stomachs or lynx furs. While the overall image may seem subdued and unflashy, this monochromatic garment is an indication of royalty; the infanta is actually displaying her noble heritage, wealth and prestige. Catalina Micaela's pale hand, with its rings and gold lace cuff, and her necklaces peeping through the gauzy fabric around her head, are other indications of her great wealth. Similarly, her snow-white skin was seen as a sign of beauty and social rank. It is likely that this was shown to potential suitors in the hope of finding her a husband.

Her direct gaze engages the viewer confidently. When Catalina did marry, she was initially disliked by her husband's courtiers due to her confidence in her own intelligence, which was seen as arrogant. Later, though, she would be praised for her ability to rule. She would die at the age of 30, after the difficult birth of her last child in 1597.

Oil on canvas - Pollok House, Scotland

1610

Self-portrait aged 78

In a cyclical way, Anguissola has finished her life's work the same way she began it - with a self-portrait. The artist shows herself majestically seated on a red velvet tasselled chair, which contrasts with the usual sombre, dark clothing that she can be seen wearing throughout most of her self-portraits. In earlier portraits she paints herself at an easel with brushes and palettes in hand, playing a musical instrument, or holding the emblems of her noble family - attributes that she promoted as a prospective young courtier. Here she shows herself as a woman of letters. In her right hand she is holding a letter, while she holds a book in her left hand, marking her place with her index finger between the pages. Anguissola's lined face and deeply hooded eyes suggest that she recognizes that this painting might be her last as she maintains eye contact with the viewer. She understood the power of art to survive through time, and uses it here to commemorate her own life and reputation.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Biography of Sofonisba Anguissola

Childhood

Born into the minor nobility, Sofonisba was the oldest of six daughters and one son. Growing up in her native Cremona, a northern Italian city then under Spanish dominion, Sofonisba developed under the careful guidance of her ambitious and erudite father. Following an Anguissola family tradition, her parents, Amilcare and Bianca (née Ponzone), gave her an ancient Carthaginian name to emphasize their ancient noble roots and possibly because of their allegiance to the Spanish king. Amilcare also gave her an extensive humanist education as was expected of all elite children during the Renaissance. This classical education would have included studying Latin, Ancient Greek and Roman writers, painting and music, as well as contemporary humanist authors. Nonetheless, her level of learning seemed to people who met her to be truly exceptional, as was her ability in painting. In providing this education above and beyond expectations, Amilcare perhaps sought to increase her chances of an advantageous marriage when she came of age - after all, he himself had made such convenient marriage to Bianca, who was slightly higher than him in social rank. At the very least, he wished to give Anguissola some degree of independence, as some of his wealthier relatives had done for their daughters.

Early Training and Work

While members of the nobility were expected to have knowledge of the arts, it was not conventional for them to pursue the arts professionally. In a radical move, Amilcare arranged specialized training in painting for Anguissola and her sister Elena. They joined the household of Bernardino Campi as apprentices in 1545. Campi was a young Mannerist artist who had met Giulio Romano while working in Mantua; he had gained quick fame for his elegant compositions upon his return to Cremona. In his workshop, Anguissola learned to copy from established masters, such as Parmigianino, although she preferred to paint from life.

Although it is hard to pinpoint for how long Anguissola trained in Milan in 1549, Anguissola continued her training with another important Cremonese painter, Bernardino Gatti (Il Sojaro). Under his tutelage she became further acquainted with the painting styles of Correggio and Parmigianino, and gained a taste for everyday scenes. It is very likely that Anguissola also collaborated in some of his commissions, the paintings she produced in the early 1550s show a sense of innovation that became one of her hallmarks: imbuing portraits with narrative and intellectual nuances.

It was this type of composition that would interest one of the legendary masters of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarroti. While she doesn't appear to have been apprenticed to him, she corresponded with him through letters. Michelangelo advised and critiqued her work, which helped her develop her skills as a painter. After receiving a drawing of a smiling girl teaching an elderly woman how to read, the master responded that a drawing of a crying boy would perhaps be more challenging. In response, Anguissola sent him Boy Bitten by a Crawfish (1554), which highlights not only the draftsmanship which Michelangelo so admired but also her sense of humor. The work is an intimate portrait of Anguissola's young brother, Asdrubale, being comforted by the youngest sister, Minerva, who smiles at the crying boy. It is thought that this sketch inspired the important Baroque artist Caravaggio to paint his Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-95).

In the continuing quest to secure Anguissola a good position, Amilcare introduced her to various courtiers and artists in Northern Italy, advertising her abilities and extending her artistic education. In 1556, Anguissola painted a portrait of Giulio Clovio, a renowned miniaturist, in gratitude for the advice he had given her. Her immediate success in this medium - then very popular - is seen in a small self-portrait probably completed that same year.

Mature Period

By 1559, her fame as a female portrait painter had spread outside Italy, and King Philip II of Spain requested that she become a lady-in-waiting to his young queen, Elisabeth of Valois. During her time at the Spanish court, Anguissola tutored the queen in drawing and painting. She also completed a portrait of the queen at the request of Pope Pius IV, and numerous full-size and miniature portraits of Spanish royals and courtiers, inventing new ways to show her subjects formally but with the life-like quality that gained her praise from Italian and Spanish art writers and collectors.

The queen and the painter became close friends. When Elisabeth died in 1568, other members of her entourage returned to France but Anguissola remained in Spain at the king's request to educate the young infantas, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela. In the meantime, Philip arranged a noble marriage for Anguissola and provided a generous dowry to ensure the stability of her future and perhaps to protect her painting career. In 1571, she married the Sicilian Fabrizio de Moncada, regent of Paternò, and they returned to his native Sicily. The rich gifts she had received as compensation for her paintings were listed in her marriage contract, demonstrating her immense success at court.

Late Period

Little is known about Anguissola's activities while married to Moncada, but she continued to paint and tutor others. At his death in 1579, she gifted a local church with an altarpiece.

The artist then decided to return to northern Italy, perhaps to be near her family. On the boat journey up the Italian coast, Anguissola met and fell in love with the ship's captain, Orazio Lomellino. Although he was a nobleman, her family did not approve of the marriage (even asking the duke of Florence, Francesco I de' Medici, to intercede). King Philip, however, approved of the marriage by gifting her with yet another annual rent. The artist served as his agent in Genoa, recommending art and artists for his new palace at El Escorial.

Anguissola lived in Genoa for 35 years, where she continued to draw attention as a celebrity. The merchant families of the city were becoming wealthier, building great palaces and commissioning art. She hosted intellectual gatherings and became friends with up-and-coming artists, including Luca Cambiaso and Bernardo Castello. She produced religious paintings that included dramatic light effects, and new portraits of the grown infantas, who visited her on their way to meet their own husbands in Savoy and Vienna.

In 1615, Anguissola and Orazio moved to Palermo, where he conducted most of his business. Like in Genoa, numerous artists sought her advice. In her later years she was unable to paint owing to a progressive blindness. Nonetheless, she became a great patron of the arts, funding other young artists and helping them develop their careers. In 1624, the year before Anguissola's death, the Dutch painter, Anthony van Dyck visited her. He was only 24, but already a star in the art world. He painted a soft, intimate portrait of her as a 92-year-old woman, with a pale forehead, a downturned mouth and watery eyes. Despite her age, van Dyck claimed that Anguissola was still very mentally sharp, albeit her eyesight had weakened. As he sketched her, they conversed on the 'true principles' of painting, and van Dyck later claimed that this conversation taught him more about painting than anything else in his life.

The Legacy of Sofonisba Anguissola

Since her early family portraits, Anguissola's works were permeated with elements of storytelling that elevated regular, everyday scenes into witty visual plays. Her ability to represent a believable likeness imbued with the personality of the sitter later became one of the hallmarks of Baroque portraiture.

In Spain, Anguissola developed a nuanced yet clever style of portraiture that suited her royal patrons' need for propaganda, combining the formal German and Venetian styles established by Antonis Mor and Titian. Her formal portraits influenced other artists there. Many of Anguissola's Spanish works perished in a fire at the Royal Alcázar of Madrid in 1734. However, her works had been so successful that even while she resided at court other artists were ordered to make copies of her paintings. Foreign artists such as Peter Paul Rubens also copied them because they recognized their superiority, and thus her innovations seeped into the genre.

Anguissola's success may have inspired a larger number of female artists than before, including Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, who ignored social expectations of female domesticity and female seclusion to the private, domestic sphere.

Perhaps owing to her gender, after her death her reputation died until she was rediscovered in the 1970s by Western feminists. While it would be incorrect to assign Anguissola the title of feminist, her success demonstrated that her talent, work and reputation were equal, if not superior, to those of any other artists. As scholars have continued to unveil details of her life and production, Anguissola has provided scholars and artists with a key to rethink how we understand the period in which she lived.

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