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Sofonisba Anguissola

Italian Painter

Sofonisba Anguissola Photo
Movements and Styles: Mannerism, The Baroque

Born: c.1532 - Cremona, Italy

Died: 16th November 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."

Giorgio Vasari

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.

Key Ideas

In the 16th century, Italian artists, writers, and collectors were interested in art theory. The idea that art was about art itself was being born. Anguissola's paintings are not simple depictions of the people she represented. Many of her works are meditations on the nature of art that invite the viewer to think about the relationship between the artwork, the viewer, and the artist.
In the Renaissance, opportunities for learning painting were usually reserved for sons and daughters of painters. Most female artists worked for their family workshops and very few were recognized independently for their talents. Anguissola did not fit in these categories. She became a renowned portraitist at a time when female painters were rare. She and her sisters became ground-breaking examples of what women could achieve in the arts.
Because she was a noblewoman, it would have been inappropriate for her to receive payment for her works. Instead, her sitters presented her with valuable gifts to express their gratitude. In addition, she did not sign the portraits she created in Spain. For these reasons, and likely because she was a woman, many of her works were later attributed to male artists. The continuing process of reattribution is difficult and sometimes controversial.
Her family's ambitions and fame were secured (and possibly why she is quite well-known today) when she was invited to become a lady-in-waiting and tutor to the consort queen of Spain, Elisabeth of Valois, who was married to Philip II of Spain. Philip's family (the Habsburgs) ruled most of Europe and the New World. Her painting abilities elevated her from being a minor noblewoman to being a member of an intimate circle of the most powerful rulers in Europe.
Detail of <i>The Chess Game</i> (c. 1555) by 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.

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