Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was a female portrait painter from northern Italy raised as one of 6 daughters by an impoverished nobleman from Cremona, Amilcare Anguissola. She learned painting, as was customary along with her sister, Elena -first with Bernardino Campi and then Bernardino Gatti. Sofonisba went to Rome at age 22 and met Michelangelo and began to study informally with him then. Because she was a woman she could not study courses in anatomy or life drawing as the men of her era could. This circumstance lead her to the development of a different genre and approach – the informal, domestic scene. Her reputation for portraits done in this style gained recognition, and in 1566 she was asked to be a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth of Valois from 1545 to 1568. She was appointed by Philip II, King of Spain in 1559 to be a Court Painter, she became internationally renowned. “Marco Gerolamo Vida counted her among the most significant painters in the publication of the time (1550) and Vasari included her in his Vite of 1568.”(1)
If one were to describe her paintings as “conversation” it is likely due her observation of expression. She had great talent for keenly painting emotion in the faces of those whose portraits she painted. Within the limitations of her society, she translated a vision available only to a woman. In her painting, The Chess Game -a painting which depicts a game often played by her sisters, particularly her sister, Europa who has “a look that registers someone’s response to absurdity, silliness, indiscretion, or dottiness, and expresses amusement, mockery, derision.”(2) Had her training been akin to that of the men in her time, the expressions of study would likely have been those of agony, piety, terror, and observance. These ‘male’ depictions were the most commonly commissioned paintings and appointments in this era as most paintings were typically depictions of a biblical context.
(1) Gaze, Delia. Dictionary of Women Artists, Volume 1. Taylor & Francis, 1997. (pg 188)
(2) Danot, Arthur Coleman. The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World. University of California Press, 2001. (pg 155)
Honour, Hugh & Fleming, John. A World History of Art. Laurence King Publishing, 2005.
Stokstad, Marilyn, et al. Art History. Prentice Hall, 2007.