Sofonisba Anguissola: A Humanist Amongst Women

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the first woman to receive international renown as an artist, and inspired such others as Irene di Spilimbergo (1540-1559), Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) to follow in her footsteps. Excelling primarily as a portraitist, Sofinisba’s paintings are especially notable for their acute sensitivity to the psychological condition of her subjects – what Leonardo called the “motions of the soul” – many of which were her own likeness.

Born one of six sisters to a poor but noble family in Cremona, Sofonisba gained a humanist education uncommon for a young girl in the period. She was also sent by her father to train with renowned portraitist Bernardino Campi. Sofonisba’s humanist foundation can arguably be seen in her earliest works, such as the Self-Portrait of 1554, where she holds an open book in which is written in Latin “Sofonisba Anguissola, a virgin, made this herself in 1554”. Not only does the book identify her as a woman of letters, but the use of Latin indicates her humanist learning. She forcefully claims ownership of the painting’s execution, a matter bolstered by the self-aware gaze she presents to the viewer. Sofonisba also relates herself to female artists of antiquity such as Iaia who, as written about by Pliny the Elder, lived as a perpetua virgo not by religious devotion, but by immersing herself fully in the arts.

In her later career Sofonisba went on to gain international recognition, being invited to fulfill the role of lady in waiting and tutor to Elizabeth of Valois, queen of Spain. Her evident skill is fully realized in The Chess Game (1555), which is considered her masterpiece. Here, Sofonisba combines landscape with portraiture, genre with storia, capturing the idiosyncrasies of her sisters’ personalities with a grace and charm which captured the admiration of such artists as Michelangelo. Though Sofonisba did not receive a biography from Vasari, she did receive high praise from the well-known critic.

Reference: Charles De Tolnay, “Sofonisba Anguissola and Her Relations with Michelangelo.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery4 (1941): 114-19.


Self-Portrait, 1554, oil on panel, 20 x 13 cm, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The Chess Game, 1555, oil on canvas, 72 x 97 cm, Museum Narodowe, Poznan.

Self-Portrait, c.1556, oil on parchment, 8.3 x 6.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Self-Portrait at the Easel, c.1556, oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm, Museum-Zamek, Lancut.

(Images: Web Gallery of Art)


Further Reading: Liana di Girolamo Cheney et al., eds., Self-portraits by Women Painters, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

Sylvio-Ferino Pagden & Maria Kusche, Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman, Washington DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995.

Posted by: Matthew Whyte

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