Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait

Self-portrait at the easel, by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556. Lancut Museum, Poland.

When you think of Renaissance painters, who do you name? Probably Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci . . . all men. Yet women were a huge part of the Renaissance – and traditional art history has yet to do them justice.

During the Renaissance, art was a social necessity. It helped to guide a largely illiterate population with spiritual guidance and new ideas. One of the painters who used art to educate was Sofonisba Anguissola – a woman.

Sofonisba was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1532. Her father was a minor noble, and encouraged her to develop her talents in the arts. Alongside her sisters, she became a painter. By the age of 14, Sofonisba was so talented that her father sent her and her sister, Elena, to study with Bernardino Campi, a religious and portrait painter. Under his tutelage, she experimented with new kinds of portraiture, posing her subjects informally or engaged in activities.

Many of Sofonisba’s early paintings were self-portraits, where she depicted herself as a woman of virtue (“virgo”) in simple dress and modesty. The images suggest piety, a virtue often sought in young women, as can be seen in her self-portrait above. Her works were recognized by Michelangelo and Vasari. In Lomazzo’s Libro de Sogni (1564), he imagines da Vinci stating that Sofonisba

“has astonished every prince and wise man in all of Europe by means of her paintings, which are all portraits, so like they seem to conform to nature itself.”

Only a few years before those lines, Sofonisba had become the court painter and lady-in-waiting for the queen of Spain, Isabel de Valois. Isabel was also her pupil, and Sofonisba resided at court until 1573. That year, she married a Sicilian nobleman and they lived together in Spain under a royal pension. Sofonisba continued painting and tutoring in Spain and, later, Palermo.

After her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to travel. In 1581, she traveled to Genoa with Captain Orazio Lomellini – whom she fell in love with and married in Pisa. They lived together in Genoa for the rest of her life, living off their joint fortune. Sofonisba painted freely, discussed the arts with her colleagues, and taught aspiring artists – including the young Flemish painted Anthony van Dyck, who claimed his conversations with her taught him more about the “true principles” of painting than anyone else in his life.

Sofonisba died in 1625 at the age of 93, leaving only her paintings as her heirs. Orazio inscribed her tomb with the epitaph,

“To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man.”

Though she never sold a painting during her lifetime, Sofonisba influenced several artists and her work lives on as a remarkable example of women’s contributions to the Renaissance. Her portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Valois was copied many times, and her successes opened the doors for more women to become career artists, such as Lavinia Fontana and Irene di Spilimbergo.

-Tiffany Rhoades
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

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