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The Art Story Homepage Artists Sofonisba Anguissola Art Works

Sofonisba Anguissola Artworks

Italian Painter

Sofonisba Anguissola Photo
Movements and Styles: Mannerism, The Baroque

Born: c.1532 - Cremona, Italy

Died: 16th November 1625 - Palermo, Sicily, Italy

Artworks by Sofonisba Anguissola

The below artworks are the most important by Sofonisba Anguissola - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Portrait of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess (c. 1555)

Portrait of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess (c. 1555)

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.

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (1559)

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (1559)

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.

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Elisabeth of Valois (1561-65)

Elisabeth of Valois (1561-65)

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.

Portrait of Catalina Micaela of Spain (c. 1577-79)

Portrait of Catalina Micaela of Spain (c. 1577-79)

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.

Self-portrait aged 78 (1610)

Self-portrait aged 78 (1610)

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.

Related Artists and Major Works

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524)

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524)

Movement: Mannerism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Parmigianino (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This iconic self-portrait shows the artist, aged twenty-one, reflected as he looks into what appears to be a mirror. His distorted hand, extenuated, fills the lower part of the image, inviting the viewer in to the intimate scene. Beautiful, almost angelic, his gaze is introspective and focused with a still intensity. The fabrics of his clothing, the multicolored patches of expensive fur, the lacy frill of his sleeve, and the white of his neckline are rendered with a subtle play of light that seems precise though the brushstrokes are almost impressionistic.

The artist intended this as a tour de force, as it was one of the paintings he took with him to Rome when seeking the patronage of Pope Clement VII. The work was remarkably innovative, as he painted the image on a convex panel. Supposedly he had a carpenter make a wooden ball that was then sawed in half, so that the work would resemble a barber's mirror. Most Renaissance artists regarded the mirror as a tool for observation and normalized images painted from reflections. But Parmigianino kept the distortions in order to create a complex play upon the nature of perception itself.

The self-reflexivity in the work was remarkably modern. Art critic Michael Glover wrote, the result is "one of the most inscrutable portraits in the entire Western canon." Additionally, art historians David G. Stork and Yasuo Furuichi stated, his "interest in psychological introspection, belief in a shifting impermanent visual reality, experimentation in the dark sciences of alchemy, wit, and youthful desire to demonstrate his artistic prowess all find their expression."

Parmigianino became one of the most influential of the Mannerists, even though he died at the age of thirty-seven. His influence extended to print making and he has been called the "father of etching." John Ashbery, the American poet and critic, wrote his book length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), inspired by this piece.

Judith and Holofernes (c. 1620-1621)

Judith and Holofernes (c. 1620-1621)

Movement: Baroque Art and Architecture

Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This dynamic painting depicts the Biblical story of the pious widow Judith and her attendant Abra as they behead the struggling Assyrian general Holofernes. When Holofernes besieged and threatened to destroy her city, Judith adorned herself and went out to meet him on the pretext of offering information. Intending to seduce her, he invited her into his tent for dinner but as the Bible says, "was so enchanted with her that he drank far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life." Taking a sword, Judith beheaded him and returned with his head in a basket to the city, where she was acclaimed as a hero. Unlike traditional depictions which emphasized Judith's beauty and delicacy and portrayed Abra as an observing witness, this work innovatively emphasizes the women's strength, their expressions conveying determined resolve, as they work together, sleeves rolled up, to do a difficult but necessary task. The intense physicality and violence of the depiction, as art historian Esperan├ža Camara wrote, "to this day...strikes its viewers with both revulsion and awe at the skill of the artist who so convincingly transformed paint into blood."

This particular subject was popular in Renaissance Florence, as seen in Donatello's statue Judith and Holofernes (1460). In the Baroque period, it became identified with the Church Militant, an expression of the victory of Christianity. But Gentileschi's portrayal took on a unique immediacy as it was informed by a personal traumatic experience. She portrayed herself as Judith and Holofernes resembles the artist Agostino Tassi, her art tutor who raped her. In 1612 he was put on trial (although it was Gentileschi who was tortured to ascertain her truthfulness), found guilty, and spent eight months in prison before being pardoned early into his sentence. Even though he had been convicted of rape previously and suspected of having murdered his wife, Tassi benefited from both the gender privileges of the era and the protection that powerful patrons extended to artists. Pope Innocent X said, "Tassi is the only one of these artists who has never disappointed me," meaning because he never pretended to be a man of honor. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "she communicated a powerful personal vision," that "fought back against the male violence that dominated the world she lived in." Perhaps as a result of that intense personal vision, her work was later hidden away. By the 1700s it was viewed as 'too violent.' In her own time, as Jones wrote, "the visceral power of her paintings made her one of the most famous artists in Europe." Feminist artists, including Judy Chicago and the Guerilla Girls in the 1970s, subsequently rediscovered her work.

Lucas and Cornelis de Wael (c.1627)

Lucas and Cornelis de Wael (c.1627)

Artist: Anthony Van Dyck (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Friends of Van Dyck, the artists Lucas and Cornelius de Wael depicted here, shared the bond of being from Antwerp. The brothers welcomed Van Dyck into their social circle when he first arrived in Genoa and this work was painted as a token of gratitude towards the brothers for their kindness and friendship. This painting is the first example of the Van Dyck double portrait, a composition which usually featured two men or women, who were often relatives or friends, painted together. Until this point double portraits usually depicted couples and Van Dyck, drawing on ideas from Raphael and Titian developed and popularized this style of friendship portrait. He is particularly known for introducing this and other new compositions to England, resulting in famous images such as Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (1638).

The portrait is an excellent example of the informal nature of Van Dyck's paintings and the introduction of such poses and compositions into his work marks a departure from Rubens's portraits, which were usually more formally arranged and executed. The brother in the foreground, probably Lucas, sits sideways on his chair with his arm draped casually over its back, whilst his elder brother looks beyond the canvas, smiling to an unseen companion to his right. Their interactions and postures give the painting the feeling of a modern snapshot, an easy familiarity, which is in direct contrast to the careful staging of more traditional portraits of the period. The work also demonstrates Van Dyck's incorporation of the Baroque style into his portraits and here it is most clearly seen in the dramatic light source which shines onto the brothers' faces.


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