The first Italian Renaissance woman painter to gain widespread fame, Sofonisba Anguissola was renowned in her time, particularly for her portraiture. Born in Cremona to the wealthy Anguissola family, one of the most celebrated families in Northern Italy, she was the eldest of seven children. Sofonisba was raised and educated according to the advice found in Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano (The Courtier, 1528), a hugely influential text on proper etiquette, manner, education and behaviour. Her father Amilcare Anguissola ensured Sofonisba and her five sisters all received a proper education, which included training and practice in art and she studied painting with her sister Elena (active 1546–84) under Bernardino Campi from about 1545 and with Bernardino Gatti from 1549.
Though Sofonisba was unusual among other women painters of her time due to her noble roots, this did not free her from the constraints imposed on her training due to her sex. She was barred from life drawing, preventing her from executing large multi-figure scenes. Instead, she sought models from whom she could make portraits. Her keen interest in accurately depicting the physiognomy and psychology of her sitters soon gained her widespread admiration and commissions. In her own self-portraits, she crafted her self-image as a professional artist and asserted her independence and belief in this role. This extended to her images of other women in which she actively celebrates women’s achievement. Perhaps this is shown no where more recognisably than in The Chess Game (1555). Depicting three lifelike portraits of her younger sisters Europa, Minerva and Lucia engaged in the intellectually challenging game of chess was a remarkable image for the time and presents as Mary Garrard describes ‘a kind of female Eden and a self-celebration of women’s accomplishments and talents’.
In 1559 Sofonisba was invited to the court of Madrid, where she was appointed as a lady-in-waiting to Elisabeth of Valois in 1560, the third wife of Philip II. She executed many portraits of the aristocracy and royal families, such as Alessandro Farnese (about 1560) and of the queen herself.
Sofonisba was not afraid to assert her talents. Her drawing Boy Bitten by Crayfish was made in response to Michelangelo challenging her to depict the difficult emotional expression of crying. Michelangelo begrudgingly admitted how impressed he was and the work influenced Caravaggio.
In an extraordinary record of the time, we have an account of Sofonisba in old age, found in the sketchbook of Anthony van Dyck who travelled to Sicily in 1624 and found the elderly, but still active painter there. His pen and ink portrait of the 96-year-old (which he later worked up in oil) is accompanied by the following description:
‘…although she was lacking in good eyesight because of her old age, she nonetheless found pleasure in placing the paintings in front of her and, with great effort, placing her nose close against the painting, she was able to make out a little of it and took great pleasure that way. In making her portrait, she gave me several pieces of advice…moreover she recounted the greatest torment she had known was not being able to paint anymore, because of her failing eyesight. Her hand was still steady, without any trembling’.
Sofonisba Anguissola is buried in the church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi in Palermo.
Barker, Sheila ed. Women Artists in Early Modern Italy: Careers, Fame and Collectors. ‘The Medici Archive Project Series’. Belgium: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2016.
Garrard, Mary D. Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 556-622.
Strinati, Claudio; Pomeroy, Jordana eds. Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. Milano: Skira Editore, 2007.
Tanzi, Marco. “Anguissola family.” Grove Art Online. January 01, 2003. Oxford University Press,..
Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556, oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm (Łańcut Castle, Poland)
Self-portrait, 1560-1561, oil on canvas, 36 x 29 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano).
Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess, 1555, oil on canvas, 72 × 97 cm (Poznań, National Museum Poland).
Alessandro Farnese, oil on canvas, 107 × 79 cm, about 1560 (Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland).
Elisabeth of Valois holding a portrait of Philip II, 1561 – 1565, oil on canvas, 206 cm x 123 cm (Royal Collection, Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Boy Bitten by a Crayfish, about 1554, black chalk and charcoal on brown paper, 33.3 x 38.5 cm (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples).
Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624, oil on canvas, 41.6 x 33.7 cm (National Trust, Knole, Kent, UK).