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Artistic Trailblazer of the Italian Renaissance

Self - Portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola c. 1554


Sofonisba Anguissola is considered the first great woman painter of the Renaissance. In a time when women were seen as objects to be represented in art, not as artists themselves, Italian Sofonisba Anguissola was a true trailblazer.

Born in Cremona Italy to Bianca Ponzoni and Amilcare Anguissola. She was the first born of seven children, six of which were girls. Her father, Amilcare, was a merchant and made sure that she and her sisters, even as girls, had a well-rounded education that incorporated fine art. This included apprenticeships with respected local painters.

Her enlightened father sent her to study at the Bernardino Campi workshop in 1546 where she honed her already considerable artistic talent. It was her father’s encouragement that helped Sofonisba overcome the difficulties of being a female artist, and set her up to become a success in the world of art.

Portrait of the Artist's Family by Sofonsiba Anguissola c.1558–59 oil on canvas

This painting shows the artist's family in a landscape and portrays her father Amilcare, sister Minerva, and brother Asdrubale with their pet dog. This is the only known portrait of her father, but Sofonisba had painted Minerva a few years before. (In the painting, 'The Game of Chess', below...)

At age 22, Sofonisba travelled to Rome and met Michelangelo. For the next two years, she studied informally with Michelangelo, exchanging drawings.

The Child Bitten by A Lobster c.1554

A drawing by Sofonisba Anguissola, executed in chalk and pencil on light blue paper. It is in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte, in Naples

Though, as a female artist, she was not allowed to study anatomy or practice drawing models due to its perceived vulgarity, she still managed to hone her drawing skills - a vital foundation for a successful career as an artist.

Philip II by Sofonisba Anguissola c. 1565 Oil on canvas

This painting of the King of Spain hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain ("The Prado")... so I have seen this one in person!

By 1558, she was an established painter and at 26 she left Italy upon receiving an invitation from Philip II, King of Spain, to join the Spanish court. She served in Madrid as the court painter and lady-in-waiting to Queen Elisabeth of Valois. She gained the admiration of the young queen and over the course of 14 years developed her skills painting many official court portraits as well as more intimate portraits of nobility and influencing the art of the Queen’s daughters. These were considerable accomplishments since she was not even of Spanish descent.

Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Spain (1545-1568) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Once the young Queen died in 1568, Philip II decided to arrange Anguissola’s marriage. She was so favored by Philip II that he personally paid her dowry so that she could marry in comfort and style. In 1571, she married Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, who was said to be supportive of her painting.

Her husband’s fortune and the pension from Philip II allowed Anguissola to paint freely. She became quite famous and many artists came to visit and learn from her.

It is believed that she and her husband left Spain to settle in Paternò Italy in Sicily from 1573 to 1579 where she was a strong supporter of the arts in Sicily. She received a royal pension, enabling her to continue working and tutoring artists. Her husband Fabrizio died in 1579.

Two years later, when travelling by sea to Cremona, she fell in love with the ship’s captain, Orazio Lomellino, a widower. They married in Pisa in 1584 and lived in Genoa where she became the city’s lead portrait painter.

The Game of Chess by Sofonisba Anguissola c. 1555

She painted this piece when she was 23 years old! Possibly her most infamous piece.

Sometimes called "The Chess Game", it 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.

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.

Sofonisba Anguissola was a prolific painter: more than thirty signed works have survived from her time in Cremona, with a total of fifty paintings securely attributed to her. She was well renowned for her artistic skill.

In 1624, young Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck visited 92-year-old Anguissola, seeking her advice on painting. Van Dyck drew the last portrait ever made of her during this visit. It is said that Van Dyck claimed their conversation taught him more about the principles of painting than anything else in his life.

, Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola by Anthony van Dyck c. 1624

Sofonisba Anguissola eventually went blind. But she was well cared for even into her old age by that generous pension given to her by Phillip II King of Spain.

She died in 1625 in Palermo Italy at age 93 with her reputation as an internationally celebrated artist solidly intact. Throughout her long career, she was respected and appreciated by the likes of artists Michelangelo and Anthony van Dyck, and art historian Giorgio Vasari. She is well-known for her self-portraits and family paintings.

Her aristocratic background and a supportive father shaped Sofonisba’s artistic career, and by combining those privileges with her talent and efforts helped her break down barriers and blaze a trail for women to be accepted as students of art.

A heartfelt THANK YOU Sofonisba! From a woman born well over 400 years after you in another country...You have helped to make what I do possible. MUCH appreciated.

Happy International Women's Day!

And, from The National Gallery of Women Artists in DC:

“Despite her artistic success during her lifetime, Sofonisba Anguissola’s fame slowly disappeared towards the eighteenth century with many of her works being ascribed to male artists. Scant scholarly attention existed about the artist until the 1970s, when historians and feminists began to spotlight the artist for her landmark achievement of opening up painting to women as a socially acceptable profession. Anguissola managed to remain in close touch with Italian artistic innovations over her seven decade career, following artistic trends as she moved from Cremona to Madrid, Sicily, Genoa, and finally Palermo. Financially independent, internationally recognized for her talent, and respected for her creativity and intelligence, Anguissola was a true Renaissance woman.”


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