Sofonisba Anguissola is considered by many to be the first successful female artist of the Renaissance and the first to attain international fame. Many feel she opened up the door for future women artists to learn and explore the art of painting. Herportrait of Queen Isabel with a "flea-fur" (the pelt of a marten worn to attract the fleas that might in its absence have attacked the person wearing it), was the most widely copied portrait in Spain. It was copied by artists such as Pieter Paul Rubens.

Sofonisba was born in Cremona, Italy in 1532. She had three sisters, all artists like herself. She was the most recognized of the sisters.

Giorgio Vasari wrote this about the her family:

"Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age 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."

Sofonisba was unlike most female artists of the 16th century who were daughters of painters.  Artists such as:

She was not able to study anatomy due to her social class, it was deemed unacceptable for a lady to view nudes. This made it challenging for her to work on her oversized historical and religious paintings.  So, she used models that she had access to instead, looking for possibilities of a new style of portraiture, with subjects set in informal everyday settings.

Her earlier works, appear to have been influenced by the style of the Campi brothers (Vincenzo, Giulio, and Bernardino) , who painted portraitures.  Her work was influenced by paintings of the Italian cities Parma and Mantua, who's religious works were made with precision delicacy.  Bernardino Gatti is said to have influenced her to use elements such as those from the artist Correggio, which started a trend that became noticeable in the Cremonese style paintings from the early 16th century. These paintings are very realistic and have an eye catching quality to them.

Her life changed dramatically, when she left her family to join the Spanish court.  Although this was a tremendous recognition for her, it is not certain if it helped her artistically. She was mainly painting only official portraits for the court.  Her paintings of Isabel de Valois and Anne of Austria, are vibrant and full of life. It took a tremendous amount of time and energy to render the intricate designs of the gowns, and the elaborate jewelry essential to the royal subjects.  Her work was so beautiful that it moved Pope Pius IV to have Sofonisba paint the portrait of the Queen of Spain.

One of her more important works was called a "double portrait". It depicts Bernardino Campi, her art teacher in the act of painting a portrait of her. Her image appears on a canvas placed on a easel, it appears to be an unfinished painting. In this painting she is paying homage to her teacher, for whom she held in high regard and respected very much. The focus of the portrait is on Campi. He is portrayed as working at his favorite pastime, painting.  Although this work has gotten darker with age and is difficult to see, Campi's arm and right hand, can be seen holding a paint brush, that is held steady by the hand rest, a stick used so as not to smudge the work in progress.

In 1554, at age  twenty-two, Sofonisba traveled to Rome.  In Rome, she stayed with her family, as her father had planned. She spent time touring Rome and sketching various scenes, and people. While she was there, she met Michelangelo through the help of another painter who knew her work well.  I would assume that meeting Michelangelo was a great honor for Sofonisba. While all of her work and training was done outside the master workshops, where male artists were trained, she had the benefit of  being informally trained by Michelangelo. He gave her sketches of his own to draw in her own style, and she would send her sketches to him, asking for his advice. For at least two years while in Rome, she continued this informal study, receiving substantial guidance from Michelangelo.

Michelangelo made a request for her to draw a weeping boy, which she did with enthusiasm. The sketch she made for this assignment would continue to be discussed and copied for the next fifty years among artists and the aristocracy. Giorgio Vasari wrote this about the weeping boy drawing:

"One could not see a more graceful or realistic drawing than this one. Since she lives in Spain and Italy does not possess copies of her works, I have placed it in our sketchbook in memory of Sofonisba's talent."

While traveling home to Cremona, Sofonisba would meet Orazio Lomellino, the captain of the ship she was traveling on. They both felt very strongly about each other, and were married shortly afterwards, in January of 1580 in Pisa, Italy. The marriage was a happy one; her husband recognized and supported her in her artwork. They would settle in Genoa, where her husband's family lived in their large home.  She had time to paint, since she had her own quarters, and an art studio. Many artists of that time came to visit, to learn, and to discuss the arts with her.  She had now developed her own style, which many up and coming artists were eager to mimic.  Her great success inspired other women of the Renaissance to pursue the career of artist.

She had always been interested in religion, and in her later years she began to paint religious themes, as she had done in the days of her youth. Through the years, many of her religious paintings have been lost. In the early 1600's, when she was roughly seventy-nine, she painted a self-portrait that showed her with a book in her right hand, and a piece of parchment paper in her left. Her wrinkled forehead and an almost playful expression in this setting is in direct contrast to the self-portrait done ten years later where she appears more subdued looking, with her raised right eye looking directly at the viewer, as if she was asking a question.

In 1623, Anguissola was visited by the Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who had painted several portraits of her in the early 1600's, and recorded sketches from his visits to her in his sketchbook. Van Dyck drew her portrait while visiting her, this was to be the last portrait made of Sofonisba. The very next year, she returned to Sicily, where she died at the age of about ninety-three in Palermo. She was buried there in Palermo in 1625.

Seven years later, on the anniversary of what would have been her 100th birthday had she lived, her husband placed an inscription on her tomb. That reads, in part:

"To Sofonisba, my wife...who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man... Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman."

Her work can be viewed at the following museums and art galleries:

  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy
  • Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy

From the photographs I have viewed of her works, she was truly a talented painter. Many other painters copied her style, but none will ever be as good as she was.

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here

Source: Women Artists. 1st ed. : Ruggio Publishing, 1977.

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