I was doing online research on self-portraits when I came across this image on a search page. There were about thirty pictures on the page, but this one was the most attention-grabbing.
What was so special about this painting? I could not quite understand. It was an unassuming pose, the colours were muted, yet something was so alluring about her character. The earnestness of the gaze and the high skill level in creating atmosphere and presence kept my attention for a considerable time. Who was this intriguing painter? Why didn’t I know her work? I knew I had stumbled upon someone worthy of more attention.
It turned out her name was Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532 – 1625) and she was a late Renaissance painter. I was surprised because she was a female cinquecento painter I have never heard about and her style was so different from the typical over-dignified, idealized and slightly stiff representation of the sitter’s personality. Where were the spectacular props, clothing, jewellery and hairstyle specific for that era? And what about the painting in the background, the one she is working on? It is affectionate and intimate, so unlike the usual Madonna and child paintings where the religious message takes precedence over the mother and child bond. The closeness is so natural that it is easy for us to miss its novelty at the time it was painted. Anguissola is recording that special moment when a mother is just about to kiss her precious child. How unusual is this depiction of mutual worship when we think of the slightly detached, more ethereal approach by other Renaissance painters! As I delved deeper into the life and art of Sofonisba, I was in for more surprises.
Her father, Amilcare, was a member of the new, ambitious nobility that embraced the emerging humanist ideas wholeheartedly. His family claimed a connection to Carthaginian roots; Sofonisba was named after a Carthaginian noblewoman. Amilcare had six daughters and one son. They were all educated in the spirit of Castiglione’s ‘The Courtier’ which advocated a thorough education for both sexes in Latin, Greek, philosophy, music and painting. Sofonisba and three of her sisters showed promise in painting, but as noble women, they were not allowed to study in a painter’s workshop as apprentices. The only women able to do that were the daughters of artists. Such was the case with Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi. Amilcare found an innovative solution to this problem, one that opened the door for other women to choose painting as a profession. He paid the leading painter in Cremona a fee to teach the girls drawing and painting techniques. Bernardino Campi taught the girls for a while, and when he moved out of town, Bernardino Gatti took over.
Amilcare showed great interest in the artistic development of his daughters, even assumed an agent’s role in aggressively marketing their work among the nobility. When Sofonisba finished her studies in Cremona, travelled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo who recognized her talent and offered informal advice through correspondence. On one occasion Sofonisba copied a Michelangelo drawing of a smiling girl. He praised her skill but challenged the young girl to work harder, and try to draw a crying boy. Sofonisba took up the challenge and the result was this drawing that soon after made its way to the noble circles of Italy, at one point even ending up in the collection of the powerful Medici family. The subject of her drawing is her crying little brother, bitten by a crayfish, and impishly comforted by one of his sisters. The unusual step of turning to her immediate family and surroundings for inspiration was an innovative move.
Here is ‘Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish’ .
The realism and informal approach of this little scene is very much in contrast with the formal, idealized lines and subjects of her age. To our eyes its realistic rendering seems familiar and contemporary. However, in the sixteenth century it was an original idea, or “invenzione”, a highly praised quality and requirement for any Renaissance artist aspiring mastery. This novel idea is a sign of growing confidence in the blossoming young artist. According to experts, it was very likely that Caravaggio saw this drawing, and later it served as inspiration for his ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’.
The most famous painting by Anguissola is ‘The Chess Game’. It shows the painter’s younger sisters Lucia (on the left), Europa and Minerva enjoying a chess game in the company of a servant or chaperone that appears in other paintings as well.
Here we see Sofonisba turning to portraiture, the only acceptable form of painting for women, given the fact they were not permitted access to nude models, an absolute requirement for large religious and historical/mythological compositions. This societal restriction imposed upon her gender may very well be one of the reasons she is forced to get around the constraints of her circumstances through the power of creativity, often the main factor behind fresh ideas. In the lack of models she is using her own family members to sit for her. This simple but unique step brings much liveliness and charm to the atmosphere of the painting. Anyone who has a sibling surely recognizes the little mocking smile of Europa for what it is. Nevertheless, she is an adorable little brat. Minerva, however, is losing one of her pieces and is not amused. She raises her hand in indignation. The old woman is leaning over with interest. The main character’s gaze is resting upon the viewer, who is drawn into the game himself as an observant. It is a clever concept, this dynamic circular motion that invites the viewer’s eye to travel from face to face. Curiously, except for the raised hand of Minerva, all this cheerful energy is achieved in spite of an otherwise motionless composition. The setting is placed outdoors, thus the illusion of fresh air offsets the stuffiness of the attires. Originality in concept, design and execution are remarkable here indeed. Having visited the Anguissola household at the time when Sofonisba was off to Spain, Vasari was impressed by this painting and the characters “done with such care and such spirit, that they have all the appearance of life, and are wanting in nothing save speech”.
Virtually unknown until recent times, except for a handful of art historians, Sofonisba is now considered a pioneer in portraiture and genre painting.
Another intriguing portrait is ‘Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba’, a picture she painted as a tribute to his teacher.
The oversized painting the master is working on is quite unsettling as it towers over the painter. The master’s turned head, his x-ray gaze…is it resting upon us, the viewers, or the model, Sofonisba? Is it really a portrait? Or a self-portrait? The model is the painter, and the real painter, Sofonisba, is the model! So, who’s painting who? It is confusing enough but the modern viewer has more questions to ask. Is it about ego? About self-identity? Is it a trick dragging one into some psycho-analytical jungle? Ah, but those classics, they had no Freud and no Jung to complicate things for them…Perhaps the picture is just a picture, but a smart one in its inconclusiveness.
Sofonisba must have had a soft spot for children. Their fleeting, capricious moods are recorded with realistic exactitude but with a sympathetic approach. I especially find delightful the ones where she captures mischief through their eyes and smiles. Yet, it is always a humanistic inclination guiding her brush. She is a true master in that sense.
‘Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa’ was commissioned to commemorate the young boy becoming the head of the family upon the death of his father. It is a great psychological study of the boy’s state of mind: the weight of undertaking responsibility not meant for tiny shoulders, anxiety, loss of a loved one, but courage and determination at the same time as well, to meet what is expected of him.
‘Portrait of a Nun’, this delicate picture of a charming, young innocent girl turning into a nun seems difficult to take for our present day sensibilities. There is much to appreciate here both in technical (the challenges of white!) and artistic terms.
Sofonisba quickly gained recognition that extended well beyond her region. She received a commission from the Duke of Alba, who in turn referred her work to King Philip II of Spain. The King was so impressed with her work that she invited her to be a court painter and lady-in-waiting for his new bride, Elizabeth Valois, who was interested in portrait painting. Sofonisba started tutoring the Queen and the two became close friends. She painted many portraits at the Spanish court, but frankly, the court paintings are not as successful artistically. They cannot break the formality and stiffness characteristic of royal courts. She could only do real work on the faces, the rest of her paint and talent is consumed by the excessive details of décor, fabric and embellishment. The faces are lovely and real, but they don’t reveal much about character. This portrait of Elizabeth Valois was the most copied painting from Anguissola, even Rubens made a copy of it.
After the death of the Queen, and over a decade of success in Spain, the King arranged a marriage for Sofonisba with the son of the prince of Palermo and paid her a generous dowry. Her husband was supporting of her art, so she was able to continue painting, many religious paintings among the portraits. Unfortunately, most of those have been lost in a fire at the Prado. After some eight years together, the couple decided to return to Italy and settle in Palermo. The King provided Sofonisba with a generous pension, enough for her to live a comfortable life even after her husband’s untimely death. Now in her forties and childless, Sofonisba travelled to Genoa. On the trip she fell in love with the ship’s captain who was much younger than her. They married and lived in Genoa for forty years. Her fame spread across Europe and she became one of the most successful portraitists. Her paintings were much sought after and admired. She continued working well into old age until her eyesight got very weak; and then she became a patron of the arts. In her nineties she moved back to Sicily. A young Anthony Van Dyck visited her there. He made a sketch of her and recorded her words of advice to him.
Here is the sketch, followed by the painting by Anthony Van Dyck:
After her death her adoring husband who described her as tiny of stature “but great among mortals”, placed this inscription on her tomb: “To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.”
Sofonisba Anguissola’s life and artistic accomplishment were a success we rarely see in art history. It seems she had the ideal mixture of natural talent and character along with wit, attractive appearance, social intelligence and good fortune. Despite her extraordinary achievement, her name and work slowly slipped into obscurity, only to be rediscovered at the end of the twentieth century. Nobody can predict the capricious nature of remembrance in the flux of time but it is hard not to agree with Vasari’s summary of her legacy: “Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours 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.”