Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sofonisba Anguissola

Anguissola was one of the rare female painters that figured prominently in the Italian Renaissance. Born in 1532, she even rose to fame before the more well-known Artemisia Gentileschi, also a major player in Italian art. Anguissola had the good fortune of being born into a relatively wealthy and noble family which allowed her to receive a balanced education. By age 15 (more or less), Anguissola was already an accomplished artist and was receiving recognition for her talents. Despite limitations such as not being able to study nude figures as a woman, she was well-received as a female artist and actually enjoyed a prominent reputation throughout her artistic career. She was even considered a "natural miracle," no doubt in some part due to her sex and the comparative lack of women in art back in that era. Instead of shunning her, many historians and men in power took to parading her around as something to be proud of. Despite being treated partially as a novelty as well as a serious artist, Anguisolla benefited greatly from her status as a premier female artist, and was lavished praise and royal appointments. She had a very precise and smooth style, that also managed to be soft and portrayed skin and human subjects with a great degree of sensitivity. Her most critically acclaimed paintings were her portraits, especially those of court members. Trained in the Italian Renaissance style, her sketches are fluid and undefined similar to her mentor Michelangelo's. In fact, upon sending a sketch of a boy bitten by a crayfish, Michelangelo was impressed enough by Anguissola's skill that he agreed to informally train her.


I definitely admire Anguisolla for her boldness and ability to break the traditional mold of male Italian artists. However, I also think it's a pity that her contemporary critics, approving as they were, could not separate her sex from her art. The prominent Dutch critic Vasari wrote: 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.

"Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess" by Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)

Another quotation from Vasari is translated to: "If women know so well how to make living men, what marvel is it that those who wish are also so well able to make them in painting?" Vasari essentially relates Anguisolla's ability in painting portraiture to her capability of childbirth. As shown in the previous painting, Anguissola has the skill of incorporating a certain liveliness to her subjects that make them seem real. While it's an improvement that male critics paid any attention to Anguisolla at all, it is still unfortunate that they so clearly analyzed her work on a completely different level than they would with another male artist. Nevertheless, her technique and skills are quite extraordinary and it's fortunate that she was recognized at all. She lived out a very blessed life well into her 90s, supported by a generous pension, a happy marriage, and a good deal of fame.

Self-portrait, 1556


1.) Fredrika Jacobs. "Sofonisba Anguissola, a Renaissance Woman by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden ; Maria Kusche." Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1996), pp. 45-47

2.) Jacobs, Frederika H. "Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola." Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 74-101

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