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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sofonisba Anguissola

The artist's sisters Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola
Playing Chess, 1555, Sofonisba Anguissola
Over the years I've written about quite a number of outstanding women artists. There's no way of saying who the first female artist may have been, but suffice to say she must have led a rather lonely existence insofar as mingling with other painters sharing her gender was concerned. Historically speaking the development of women artist coincides rather perfectly with the development of successful, independent, women in general, though it's hard to say whether there was a cause and effect involved or merely a correlation. However, one particular woman artist seems to have been something of a "breakthrough" artist who came to the forefront of her trade shortly after the Italian Renaissance (during the early 1500s) when there were few, if any, women working as artists. Her name was Sofonisba Anguissola.

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crawfish, 1554, Sofonisba Anguissola
The drawing (above) by Sofonisba Anguissola of her brother, Asdrubale, being bitten by a crawfish, was done when the artist was around twenty years of age. That was about the time Sofonisba Anguissola first went to Rome. There she met Michelangelo, who was, by then, well up in years (around eighty). If ever there was an expert as to drawing, it was Michelangelo. History and/or tradition has it that the master painter, sculptor, and architect was impressed by her talent and particularly this drawing. From Rome the young artist traveled to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. Elizabeth of Valois, the queen and wife of Philip II of Spain, who was a keen amateur painter. In 1559 Anguissola was recruited to go to Madrid as the queen's tutor. She later became an official court painter to the king, and adapted her style to the more formal requirements of official portraits for the Spanish court.

Sofonisba Anguissola, age 32 to 90
Sofonisba Anguissola is unique, not just in the fact that she was a consummate woman portrait artist at a time when there were, in fact, virtually no other professional female artists of her kind and caliber. She was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1532. She lived until 1625, making her ninety-three years old when she died. Not only that, but she was still painting self-portraits in her late seventies. Her 1610 self-portrait (above-left) was one of her last. The painting of Massimiliano Stampa, the third marquis of the northern Italian city of Soncin, from 1557 was her first commission. That's a career spanning nearly sixty years.
Portrait of Massimiliano Stampa, third
marquis of the northern Italian city
of Soncin, 1557, Sofonisba Anguissola.
There is something decidedly natural, even modern looking, about Anguissola's many aristocratic portraits. Her queenly painting of Queen Elisabeth of Spain, was painted around 1599. Besides appearing to have been quite beautiful, without the crown and clothing, and despite her royal bearing, the woman looks as if she were painted during the 20th-century.
Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Spain, 1599, Sofonisba Anguissola

The same can be said of Anguissola's portrait of Infanta Catalina Micaela, (below) done up in her rich furs, jewelry, and makeup, which dates from 1591. Influenced by the prevailing style of Spanish court painting of the time, Anguissola made every attempt to blend her own style with that of the "official" Spanish portrait. The queen might just as easily be a rich New York society debutant.

Infanta Catalina Micaela, 1591, Sofonisba Anguissola
Catherine Michelle (Infanta Catalina Micaela of Spain) and Isabella Clara Eugenia with Parrot and Dog, (below) from 1570, provides an example of a childhood painting of the Infanta Catalina Micaela of Spain as a child, but is typical of her way with children and the Spanish court style she acquired at the height of her career. Incidentally, some believe Sofonisba Anguissola painted a similar group portrait of the children of William Shakespeare (bottom). The evidence is sketchy at best. At the age of 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Six months after the marriage, Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna. Twins, a son named Hamnet and a daughter, Judith, followed almost two years later in 1585. The children's ages are approximately right as compared to their painted images, but the "prissy" expressions on the children's faces bear little resemblance to any others she ever painted. Also, there's no record of Shakespeare having visited Italy (much less with wife and kids in tow), or that Anguissola ever visited England.

Catherine Michelle (Infanta Catalina Micaela of Spain ) and Isabella Clara Eugenia with Parrot and Dog, 1570, Sofonisba Anguissola
Her most distinctive and attractive paintings are her portraits of herself and her family, as seen in the portrait below painted before she moved to the Spanish court. In particular her depictions of children were fresh and carefully observed. At the Spanish court she painted formal state portraits in the prevailing official style. In her old age, Anguissola also painted religious themes, although many of her religious paintings have been lost. Late in life, Anguissola became a wealthy matron of the arts after the weakening of her sight. In 1625, she died at the age of ninety-three in Palermo (an exceptionally long lifespan for that period).

Family Portrait, Minerva, Amilcare and Asdrubale Anguissola,
c.1559, Sofonisba Anguissola
Anguissola's example, as much as her work, had a lasting influence on subsequent generations of women artists. Her great success opened the way for larger numbers of women to pursue serious careers as artists. Her paintings can be seen at galleries in Boston, MA (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), Bergamo, Brescia, Budapest, Madrid (the Prado), Naples, Siena, and at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A rather unique tribute was paid Anguissola by her painting instructor, Bernardino Campi, as he posed while in the process of painting her portrait long enough for her to paint his portrait (below). Moreover, no less a figure from the 16th-century Italian art world than the art historian, Giorgio Vasari, wrote about Anguissola, commenting upon the greatness of her work and her grace as compared to other women of that era. "In her endeavors 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."

Bernardino Campi painting Sofonisba
Anguissola, 1550s, by Sofonisba Anguissola.

Three children with dog, 1570-90,
Sofonisba Anguissola, thought by
some to depict William Shakespeare's

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