The Unexpected Self-Portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola

A woman artist of the 1500s that redefined Italian Renaissance

Vivian Castro
May 12 · 5 min read
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Sofonisba Anguissola, "Self-Portrait" (1556). Wikimedia Commons.

There is a rough idea that says that there was no such thing as women artists in the past or, at least, that there were not important women artists in the past. However, even this notion is not accurate. There were, indeed, women artists, even if they were in less number than men. Many of these women were recognised by their own worth and artistic geniuses, and celebrated during their lifetime. One particular case is the painter Sofonisba Anguissola, a distinguished Renaissance painter who worked in the Madrid Court. Anguissola lived a life of relative freedom, power, and recognition.

Her work is so relevant that it is pointed by specialists in the field that Anguissola built a bridge between Renaissance art and the Baroque realism, which would have in Caravaggio its ultimate master. “Rediscovering” Anguissola is still a work in progress, and it definitely worth it.

What type of life did Sofonisba Anguissola have?

Sofonisba was the eldest of six sisters and one brother from a well-educated family of the city of Cremona, in Italy. She and three of her sisters — Lucia, Europa, and Anna Maria — became painters, but only Sofonisba achieved fame and fortune. She was even responsible for sustaining her father after he lost his fortune, and, later, her own younger brother, Asdrubale.

Sofonisba (with just eleven years old) and sister Elena went to live and study with Bernardino Campi, a recognised painter in Cremona. You can imagine how rare it was to a father to send his daughters for a traditional artistic training, and it sure was. However, Amílcar, the Anguissola patriarch, was also connected with the fashions of the time, which stated that noble and distinct women had to have a proper illustrated education: to learn Latin, literature, music and to painting.

It’s valid to spend a few lines describing the artists of the time. They were usually from bourgeois families, they studied a few years with a master (generally copying his style), and they were sustained by comissions from noble families or, if he was lucky, from royal courts or even the Catholic Church itself.

The Anguissola sisters were from a higher class than most of the male artists of their time, which gave them a few privileges. Also, a family fortune and her father’s open mind gave Sofonisba not only have free will and thought, but probably helped her to marry freely only after a certain age.

After her training years with Bernardino Campi, is believed that Anguissola studied with Michelangelo in Rome for approximately two years, particularly showed by the correspondence between her father and the Italian master. Sofonisba’s prestige in Italy traveled to Spain. By the end of 1559, Anguissola went to Madrid by the invitation of King Phillip of Spain, to work as a portraitist in the Court. She also became the painting teacher of the Queen, Isabela of Valois, for painting, and remained in this position for ten years. After that, the painter already had fame and money to live her own life, in Palermo, her home until her death by ninety-four years old.

The artist married twice. Living in Palermo with her second husband, Sofonisba was the epicentre of feasts with artists and intellectuals of the time. A fine end for a woman artist who lived fully all the opportunity she’s got.

Anguissola’s biography differs from everything we learn from women in the Renaissance. It makes me think if there were other women like her but that did not become famous. If so, maybe we are telling stories about women too poorly.

Intimacy delight: “The Chess Game”

The Chess Game (1555) is considered one of Anguissola’s masterpiece. It depicts three of her sisters playing chess — Lucia, Europa, and Minerva — supervised by their nurse. Lucia just won the game, and is still with the hand on the board. Europa lifted her hand like in protest for her lost, and the young Minerva laughs playfully of the sister’s defeated gesture.

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Sofonisba Anguissola, "The Chess Game" (1555). Wikimedia Commons.

This work shows an intimate fun scene that has also its importance in terms of technique. Look how vivid the characters look, especially Minerva, whose laughing face is so expressive it looks like we are facing a photograph (painting or draw a smiling face is not a simple task).

But there is one more character on the scene, besides the four figures. The fifth person is Sofonisba Anguissola herself, who is participating as a spectator to the girl’s game, while she is painting it. We can see that Lucia is looking directly at her with a witty expression of triumph. Her expression also make me think that both sisters may have a secret, something that a simple interchanging of gaze can tell what a thousand word could not. We, as viewers, get the privilege to get a minimum sight of the Anguissola sisters’ intimacy, our bodies substituting Sofonisba’s.

If a painter is not depicted in the painting herself, does it count like a self-portrait? Usually not, but if she is included by intimacy, maybe we can think of another type of relation proposed by a painting. Diego Velázquez included the viewer’s inside the painting by placing a mirror in Las Meninas (1656), but Anguissola made it more subtle and definitely warmer and kinder.

After Renaissance, the idea of placing the eye of the painter was substituted by a more “scientific” and precise looking, one that tried to erase the maker of the painting. Only in the 1800s with Romanticism the idea of looking through someone’s eye was depicted in painting again, represented in scenes like the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) of Caspar David Friedrich. The complexity of Anguissola’s girls game is one of a kind in art history.

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