In a time when most female artists faced gender biases in the mainstream fine art world, Sofonisba Anguissola became the first to build an international reputation and gain recognition as one of the finest women painters of the Italian Renaissance. A majority of the known female painters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were daughters of established painters, however, Anguissola (born in 1532) was the first of seven children from a noble family in Cremona, Italy. Her father Amilcare Anguissola was a progressive man who made sure all of his children, including his six daughters, received a well-rounded education that included the fine arts. Sofonisba and her sister Elena were sent to study with Bernardino Campi, a respected portrait and religious painter of the Lombard school. “Her father was a very important figure in her life and career,” says Carol Damioli, author of Portrait in Black and Gold, the historical novel based on Sofonisba Anguissola’s life and career. “He saw her talent from an early age, found her teachers and promoted her to paint portraits for wealthy families.”
Ladies of high social standing like Anguissola were often encouraged to have hobbies to bolster their talents. Self-portraits and family members were her most frequent subjects early on, and when she was 20, she painted her most famous work, The Chess Game, which captured her sisters playing chess. “Being well-educated, personable and of gentle birth meant she became in demand as a portrait painter,” says Gerta Moray, Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph. “Her portraits were remarkably innovative and natural looking with strong human expression.”However, her career was not without challenge. As women at the time were not permitted to have a regular painter’s apprenticeship studying anatomy or drawing from life, it limited her range of available subject matter. Most of the 50 works attributed to Anguissola focus on portraiture and religious themes.
Portraits combining elaborate formal clothing with very informal facial expressions were unusual for Italian art at the time, and she soon became well known outside Italy. “She blazed the trail for the acceptance of woman in painting, and was praised to be just as good as Titian,” says Moray. In 1559, at the age of 26, she was asked by King Philip II of Spain to be a lady-in-waiting and art teacher to Queen Isabella of Valois – a major turning point in Anguissola’s life and career.
Her 14-year residence in Madrid as court painter and lady-in-waiting was filled with poetry readings, carriage rides, dances and theatrical performances with the young Queen when Anguissola wasn’t in the studio painting. The paintings she produced at court showcased the height of her artistic abilities and took tremendous time and energy to render the intricacies of her royal subjects. Her official portraits for the court were vibrant and full of life; the most recognized being a piece of the Queen that showcased the fine fabric workings and elaborate jewellery details of her outfit.
When her tenure as lady-in-waiting ended in 1571 after the death of the Queen, King Philip took special interest in Anguissola’s future, and arranged for her to wed a Sicilian nobleman who was supportive of her painting. When Anguissola was later widowed, she remarried a Genoese nobleman as she continued to paint freely and offer advice and guidance to many young artists who sought her out from across Europe.
In what was probably her last piece, she painted her final self-portrait a few years before she died at age 93 in Palermo. Anguissola depicted herself as an old woman, and her hallmarks of detail and expression were ever present as they were at the start of her career. At a time when most women’s lives were quite dull, she had the rare opportunity and great skill and success of lasting influence to open the way for female artists of the future to pursue serious careers.