Palermo, Sicily, Italy
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.
- 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.
Biography 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.
Important Art by Sofonisba Anguissola
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Sofonisba Anguissola
- Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the RenaissanceBy Ilya Sandra Perlingieri. Rizzoli, 1992
- Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance WomanNational Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995
- Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of FlorenceBy Jane Fortune, (2009)
- Sofonisba Anguissola: Marvel of Nature'By Betsy Fulmer, paper given at Academic Forum 23, (2005-6)
- JSTOR - Here's Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman ArtistBy Mary D. Garrard / Renaissance Quarterly / Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 556-622
- JSTOR - Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba AnguissolaBy Frederika H. Jacobs / Renaissance Quarterly / Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 74-101