Anguissola, Sofonisba

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Sofonisba Anguissola

Cremona, Italy 1625
Palermo, Italy


"[Sofonisba Anguissola] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavors at drawing … [and] by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings."

Sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari quoted in A Guide to the Collection of European Art to 1900. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola (pronounced ahn-GWEE-so-lah) was the first woman artist to establish an international reputation and to produce a substantial body of work. Her portraits depicted stories, a technique that was ahead of her time. At the end of the sixteenth century the main interests of Italian art were nature scenes and genre scenes such as the Crucifixion (execution of Jesus Christ on a cross), the Resurrection (Jesus's rising from the dead), and still life. Anguissola inspired other Italian women to take up painting. Among them were Irene di Spilimbergo (1541–1559) and Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614). Spilimbergo took lessons from the Italian master Titian (c. 1488–1576) and produced several paintings. Fontana established a successful career, becoming the first woman artist to receive large public commissions (see accompanying box).

Specializes in portraits

Born in Cremona, Italy, in 1532, Anguissola was the eldest child in a family of six daughters and a son. She and her sisters received a humanist education. (Known as studia humanitatis, or humanist studies, this was a new curriculum based on ancient Greek and Roman languages and literature. The emphasis on humanist studies initiated the Renaissance.) Four of the Anguissola daughters—Sofonisba, Lucia, Europa,

Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana was a successful Renaissance woman artist. Like Sofonisba Anguissola, Fontana gained fame as a painter and made a living from her career. She was born in Bologna, Italy, where she studied painting with her father, Prospero Fontana, a well-known artist and teacher. By the age of eighteen she had earned a reputation as a painter of portraits and religious subjects. While working in her father's studio she met fellow painter Giano Paolo Zappi, whom she married in 1577. Zappi apparently gave up his own career to support Fontana's work. He managed the income from her numerous commissions and helped take care of their eleven children.

Fontana was famous for her portraits, including Self-Portrait at Spinnet (1577). One of her best-known works is Portrait of a Noblewoman (1580), which depicts a young woman standing and caressing a small dog. The portrait shows the artist's skill in giving a sense of realism to the delicate silk underdress that the woman wears beneath an ornately embroidered velvet overdress. Fontana also captured the fine details of the woman's gold, pearl, and ruby jewelry. During the 1590s Fontana focused on religious themes, and she painted several large altarpieces (artwork that is part of the altar, or center of worship, in a church). This was unusual for a woman artist, since women were generally not hired to work on altarpieces. The main reason for this was that women were not allowed to study anatomy or draw nude male models, which was necessary to depict the human figures that were featured in Renaissance religious paintings. Fontana's altarpieces included the Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ for the Escorial palace, the famous monastery and royal residence that King Philip II commissioned to be built in Spain. Around 1603, at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII, Fontana moved to Rome as an official painter to the papal court. She painted the altarpiece The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr for the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura. This was her best-known public commission. Fontana's fame continued to grow as her workshops in Rome and Bologna produced works of high quality. Art historians estimate that Fontana produced more than one hundred paintings. Only thirty-two identified as her work have survived, while a small number of others appear to be in her style. Though they are still the largest number of known works created by a woman artist prior to 1700.

and Anna Maria—became artists, and another, Minerva, was noted for literary studies. Sofonisba's Anguissola emergence as a painter was unusual in a period when women artists were typically trained by their fathers.

Anguissola studied painting with local artists, then she taught her younger sisters. Lucia showed the most interest in art. Anguissola's specialization in portraits and self portraits was shaped by the restraints placed on female artists at the time. They were not allowed to study anatomy or draw male models, which prevented them from creating large-scale historical paintings that featured human forms. Anguissola therefore turned to portraiture. Her depiction of firmly drawn, animated faces within a delicate surrounding was her trademark style. Her earliest known works are the Portrait of a Nun (1515) and Self-Portrait (1554).

Anguissola's paintings were admired by contemporaries such as the Roman nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri, who disregarded the popular belief that painting was a masculine art. She was encouraged by the great painter Michelangelo (1475–1564; see entry). When Michelangelo saw Anguissola's drawing of a smiling girl teaching her nurse to read, he said that a weeping boy would have been more difficult to draw. This comment caused her to draw a boy (her brother Asdrubale) bitten by a crayfish. Anguissola's drawing was probably the model for Carvaggio's painting Boy Bitten by Lizard (c. 1596), thus showing her influence on the important artists of her time.

Serves as court painter

Portrait painting did not receive much respect in the sixteenth century, but Anguissola used it as a way to represent artistic achievement. In The Chess Game (1555), she depicted her sisters Lucia, Europa, and Minerva at the chess board. This was meant to demonstrate female excellence at an intellectual game. The painting also hinted at the sisters' shared history as aspiring artists who competed with and learned from one another. In her works of the late 1550s, such as Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola and The Family Group, the expression of pride in female achievement is reversed to become a commentary on the male-dominated society, values, and norms.

Anguissola spent the years 1559 to1573 in Madrid, Spain, as court painter and lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella of Valois, whom she taught to paint. Anguissola's Spanish paintings are not well documented and have been confused with the works of other painters. Among the few portraits known for sure to be Anguissola's are Philip II and Isabella of Valois (both painted around 1565). Sofonisba's marriage in 1573 to a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio de Moncada, ended with her husband's untimely death in 1578 or 1579. Her marriage in 1580 to the Genoese nobleman Orazio Lomellini took her to Genoa, Italy, where she remained for the next four decades and invented a new baroque. (The term used to describe the music, art, literature, and philosophy of the seventeenth century; exuberant, sensuous, expressive, and dynamic style.) Her last years were spent in Palermo, Italy. Anguissola' eyesight began to fail at the end of her life and she was unable to paint. In 1624, a year before her death, the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) visited her and sketched her portrait in his notebooks. He noted that she had a clear memory, told good stories, and gave him advice on his own paintings. Anguissola was an important figure, especially for women, in the tradition of Renaissance art.

For More Information


Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, and Maria Kusche. Sofonisba Anguissola: a Renaissance Woman. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995.

Perlingieri, Ilya Sandra. Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance. New York: Rizzoli, 1992.

Web Sites

Artist Profiles: Lavinia Fontana. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

"Sofonisba Anguissola." A Guide to the Collection of European Art to 1900. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

"Sofonisba Anguissola." Art Cyclopedia. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.