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 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 overlook its novelty at the time it was painted. Unfortunately, the painting in the background is lost, but even from the tiny image of it we can see 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. All the children were 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 apprenticeship 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 would later open the door for other women aspiring to choose painting as a profession. Amilcare paid the leading painter in Cremona a fee to teach his girls drawing and painting techniques. Bernardino Campi taught the girls for a while, and when he moved out of town, Bernardino Gatti took over thir education.
Amilcare showed great interest in the artistic development of his daughters, even going as far as assuming an agent’s role in aggressively marketing their work among the nobility. When Sofonisba finished her studies in Cremona, she travelled to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo. The master 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 realistic informal approach to 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 of the Renaissance, given the fact they were not permitted access to nude models, which was an absolute requirement for large religious and historical/mythological compositions. This societal restriction imposed upon her gender may very well have been one of the reasons she was forced to get around the constraints of her circumstances through the power of creativity – often one of the main factors behind fresh ideas. In her case the lack of models prompted her to turn to her immediate family members as sitters. This simple but unusual step brings much liveliness and charm to the atmosphere of the painting. Anyone who has a sibling surely recognizes the little mocking smile on Europa’s face 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 as an observer. The eyes travel from face to face in a dynamic circular motion. Curiously, except for the raised hand of Minerva, all this spirited energy is achieved in spite of an otherwise motionless composition. The setting for the painting 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 a time when Sofonisba was off to Spain, Vasari was very impressed with this painting and with 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 an 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 oversize painting the master is working on is quite unsettling as it towers over him. The master’s turned head, his x-ray gaze is resting upon us, the viewers, and so is the model’s, Sofonisba’s too. It is a bit confusing: Is it really a portrait? Or is it a self-portrait? Or perhaps the invisible subject is us, the viewers, that the painter and the model are scrutinizing?The modern viewer has even more questions to ask: Is it about ego? About self-identity? Is it a clever 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.
Although Sofonisba never had a child of her own, she must have had a soft spot for children. Their fleeting, capricious moods are recorded with an honest exactitude. She captures the complexities of a budding character with unapologetic realism. Yet, it is never in question that a sympathetic eye is guiding her brush. She possesses that special ability to touch audiences across time – the sign of a true master.
‘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 responsibilities 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. No doubt, this little boy will rise to the occasion – with help from a furry friend perhaps.
‘Portrait of a Nun’ is a delicate picture of a charming, young innocent girl turning into a nun. There is much to ponder for our present day sensibilities. Sofonisba also has a chance to display her technical virtuosity in tackling the challenges of white.
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 anymore. This portrait of Elizabeth Valois was the most copied painting by 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. She executed a number of religious paintings. 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 embarked on a boat to travel 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 of her day. Her paintings were much sought after and admired. She continued working well into old age until her eyesight started to weaken – and then she turned herself into a patron of the arts. In her nineties she moved back to Sicily. The young Anthony Van Dyck visited her there. He made a sketch of her and recorded her words of wisdom and 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 was a success rarely seen in art history. It seems she had the ideal mixture of natural talent and character along with wit, attractive physical appearance, social intelligence and good fortune. But 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 fickle 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.” A true Renaissance woman indeed…