Sofonisba Anguissola, also known as Sophonisba Angussola, was an Italian Renaissance painter who revolutionized the art world by becoming the first woman to succeed as a painter throughout Europe. Her work achieved a level of admiration early in her career. She was praised by great masters like Van Dyck and Michelangelo, as well as critics like Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about her paintings. The painter paved the road for women to become accepted in art schools and as professional artists, even if this progressed slowly. As a woman in a male-dominated artistic field - as there were no highly successful female artists during the Renaissance - Anguissola faced many adversities. Even so, she thrived by finding alternative ways of producing art, like painting self-portraits, which also served as a statement of her image as an artist. She focused on portrait painting since women were not allowed in classes with live models, which was an essential part of anatomy study.
Sofonisba Anguissola was born circa 1535, in Cremona, a commune in Northern Italy, in the state formally known as Duchy of Milan. Thanks to Almicare Anguissola, her father, Sofonisba, and her six younger siblings had access to the best education, including literature and artistic training. Both Almicare and her mother, Bianca Ponzone, came from noble families.
One of the main reasons Sofonisba was able to rise as an artist during the Renaissance - a period in which women were allowed to paint but not become professional painters - was because of her father's support. Almicare was a true Renaissance man, meaning he partook of its courtier and humanistic ideals. He was an eloquent and graceful aristocratic man, aware of the importance of educating his children in the world of arts and literature. It wasn't long until he saw Sofonisba's unique talent for drawing and painting.
Almicare encouraged his children to cultivate their natural talents. Not only did Sofonisba become a painter, but so did four of her sisters: Elena, who later stopped painting to become a nun, Lucia, who sadly passed away at a young age, and lastly Anna Maria and Europa, who both stopped painting after they married. Since Sofonisba was the oldest, she served as a mentor to her younger siblings. Her other two siblings, Minerva and her only brother, Asdrubale, became Latin scholars, and the latter also studied music.
At the age of fourteen, Sofonisba began her formal education under Bernardino Campi, along with her sister, Elena. She later continued as Bernardino Gatti's pupil, which she continued for some years, although the dates are not precise. As a young woman, Sofonisba broke many barriers by being apprenticed by other painters, opening new opportunities for other women to study art, and become accepted as professional painters.
The Italian painter was extraordinarily creative and innovated in her creations early in her career, like in the double portrait Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola concluded during her early teens. The way Anguissola portrayed her mentor and herself in this portrait within a portrait was rarely seen during the Renaissance, especially for a woman artist. Her whimsical approach to ordinary subjects quickly captivated audiences all over Europe.
Sofonisba's artistic production began to ascend after traveling to the Italian capital, Rome. She was an avid drawer and spent most of her travels, sketching the people and surroundings. There the artist came in contact with great masterpieces and even met Michelangelo himself. Before meeting her, he was already impressed by her work and became almost a mentor for Anguissola, giving her sketches and tips for her studies.
The Renaissance master saw so much promise in her talents that he decided to give her a challenge: after seeing the drawing Old Woman Studying the Alphabet with a Laughing Girl, Michelangelo enticed the young artist to portray an opposition, a crying boy, a more significant challenge in his eyes. Anguissola did not disappoint and made drew Asdrubale Bitten by a Crawfish, a portrayal of her siblings.
To understand the art of Sofonisba Anguissola it's essential to comprehend the dynamics of the European societal structure of the Renaissance. The education and training that women took would always serve the purpose of preparing them for a life as spouse and mother, meaning women could paint, but could not become artists involved in the art world. This chauvinistic rules made it hard for women to aspire for an artistic career. For example, Anguissola was not allowed access to lessons with live models, making it challenging to study anatomy in-depth for lack of reference.
During the Renaissance, it was considered immoral for a woman to see nude bodies, even though the men artists had constant access to nude female models for their art. Because of her studies' limitations, Anguissola did not work with elaborate religious paintings, like many of her contemporaries. Instead, she focused on portraying the people around her and herself. Another obstacle the artist faced was not being able to commercialize her work, and she would virtually give them away, while other people would profit from her paintings.
Around the age of 23, in 1555, Sofonisba Anguissola produced some of her most significant paintings. The masterpiece Portrait of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess drew the public's attention not only because of its inviting, intimate family scene but because of the variety of facial expressions depicted in each figure, rarely seen in Renaissance painting. She was also a pioneer in unconventional self-portraits, becoming the first woman ever to portray herself while playing an instrument in the delicate Self-Portrait Playing the Spinet.
During her mid-twenties, in 1559, Anguissola's career took a significant shift for the best. After portraying the Duke of Alba in Milan a year earlier, she was summoned to become a painter for the Spanish Court. There she represented various members of the court, which implied in more formal paintings than she was accustomed to producing. Naturally, the Italian artist rose to the occasion and continued to work under the Spanish Court for fourteen years.
Not only did she mark her presence by creating beautiful portraits of members of the Court of Spain, but she also mentored the Queen herself, Elisabeth of Valois, as well as her daughters, Catherine and Isabella. Sadly, the Queen suffered from an early death in 1586, at the age of twenty-three, and after this, Anguissola received a pension from King Phillip II, which helped her continue producing.
In 1571, the King arranged Anguissola's marriage to Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, a nobleman who passed away unexpectedly only eight years later. During this period, it was extremely frowned upon for a widowed woman to remarry, but Anguissola was always ahead of her time. She married again in 1584 to Orazio Lomellino, and they were deeply in love.
A year before her death, Sofonisba received a visit from the illustrious Sir Anthony van Dyck, very young at the time. He learned precious teachings about the principals of paintings and being an artist from the master Anguissola, who he portrayed in a beautiful artwork.
Sofonisba Anguissola passed away on November 1625, over the age of ninety. Although she became very famous during her lifetime, she was virtually forgotten after her death. Since she did not sign many of her paintings, many of Anguissola's works were attributed to other painters, like Van Dyck and even Leonardo da Vinci. The masterpiece Portrait of Caterina Micaela of Spain is a great example, as it was formally attributed to El Greco.
Anguissola's work was crucial for the acceptance of women as professional artists, a cause that continued to be significant in the nineteenth century, in which painting was still seen as an unfit practice for women. Her work had had a substantial influence on other women to pursue a painting career, especially Lavinia Fontana, Irene di Spilimbergo, Fede Galizia, Barbara Longhi, and the Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi.