Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)
Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Let me introduce you to a female artist, whom I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard of, but whom Giorgio Vasari, the Italian biographer of artists, made the following comment:

“…[She] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings…”

My featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Her christian name came from a strong family connection to ancient Carthaginian history and her parents named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure who lived and committed suicide during the Second Punic War.  Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, a city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, around 1532.  Her father was Amilcare Anguissola and her mother was Bianca Ponzone.  Both parents came from affluent and noble families and they lived a privileged and affluent lifestyle.  Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children.  She had one brother, Asdrubale and five sisters, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria.   All of her sisters except Minerva became artists.

Having come from such an advantaged family background was somewhat unusual for women artists of the sixteenth century, as any of note, tended to be daughters of impoverished artists.  The family wealth coupled with the father’s belief that all females should be educated ensured that Sofonisba received an all-round and extensive education, including studying drawing and fine art.   The fact that she came from a wealthy and privileged background did not however avoid the restrictions imposed by the Italian art establishment, such as forbidding female artists from studying anatomy or attending life drawing classes as it was deemed inappropriate for a female to view a naked model, which consequently meant a female could not study the human anatomy to the same extent as a male artist could and because of this she was unable to carry out the complex multi-figure compositions which were at the heart of the popular large-scale religious and historical works.  With those obstacles in mind, Anguissola decided to concentrate on portraiture using female models, which were accessible to her, and instead of historic settings she concentrated on having her sitters shown in homely and unceremonious settings.  Self-portraits and portraits of family members were her most frequent subjects and it was not until much later in life that she turned to paintings incorporating religious themes.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)
Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

At the age of fourteen Sofonisba and her sister Elena attended the studio of Bernardino Campi, the Italian Renaissance religious painter and portraitist who was based in Cremona.  She pictorially recorded the time she was with Campi in her double portrait depicting her mentor painting a portrait of her.  The work, entitled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, was completed by her during her last year as his pupil in 1550, when she was just eighteen years old.   After Campi, Sofonisba studied under the Italian artist Bernardino Gatti, often known as il Sojaro, and continued being tutored by him for three years, eventually leaving him when she was twenty-one years of age.

In 1554, Anguissola journeyed to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. The highlight of her stay in the Italian capital was when she was introduced to the great Master himself, Michelangelo Buonarotti.   We know the two met as in the Buonarrotti Archives held in Florence there is a letter, dated May 1557, from Sofonisba’s father Amilcare to Michelangelo in which he writes thanking him for spending time with his daughter:

“…honourable and thoughtful affection that you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter,

to whom you introduced to practice the most honourable art of painting…”

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)
Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Intrigued by her artistic talent Michelangelo asked her to sketch him a picture of a weeping boy and the result was her sketch entitled Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish.  Sofonisba rose to the challenge and sketched her young brother, Asdrubale, being bitten and being comforted by one of his sisters.  Michelangelo was so impressed with the drawing that he gave her some sketches from his notebook and asked her to copy them in her own style.  She complied with his request and the results of her efforts again astounded the Master and because he recognised how artistically talented she was, for the next two years, he agreed to mentor her.  Again we have been made aware of the high regard in which Michelangelo held Sofonisba’s work as in a letter dated May 1558, (held in the Buonarrotti Archives) her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for praising his daughter’s artwork:

“…[you were] kind enough to examine, judge, and praise the paintings done by my

daughter Sofonisba…”

In 1558, aged twenty-six, Sofonisba Anguissola left Rome and went to Milan and it was here she received a commission to paint a portrait of Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba.  The sitter was so pleased with the resulting painting that he recommended her to Philip II, the King of Spain.  Court officials invited Sofonisba to come to Madrid and be part of the Spanish court.  This fact alone is clear evidence of Sofonisba’s artistic talent and her success, as it would have been unheard of that such a powerful leader as Philip II would countenance an insignificant artist being invited to join and live at the Spanish court and paint for his new Queen.

Late in December 1559 she arrived in the Spanish capital and took up her role at the Spanish court as a court painter as well as being one of the attendants to the Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Infanta Isabella, and later as a lady-in-waiting to her mother, Philip’s new queen, his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois (the Queen consort, Isabel of Spain) who was an accomplished amateur portrait painter.  This shared love of art between Sofonisba and Elisabeth flourished and Sofonisba would often offer artistic advice and give the queen some artistic tuition.   Sofonisba soon received many official commissions to paint portraits of the king and queen’s family and courtiers.  These were very different to her earlier portraiture work which were very informal as Philip and his wife wanted the portraits he had commissioned Sofonisba to paint to show the wealth and power of the sitters by paying attention to background and peripheral objects such as fine and sumptuous clothing, jewelled adornments and priceless furnishings.  This type of portraiture took time and skill but the finished products were always well received by the sitters.

Her artistic talents were also recognised by another powerful leader, Pope Pius IV who asked Sofonisba to paint a portrait of the Queen consort, Isabel, and have it sent to him.  Giogio Vasari in his book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) quotes a letter the pontiff sent Sofonisba thanking her for the painting and praising her work.  In the letter he wrote:

“… Pius Papa IV. Dilecto in Christo filia.

 We have received the portrait of our dear daughter, the Queen of Spain, which you have

sent… We thank you and assure you that we shall treasure it among our choicest possessions,

and commend your marvellous talent which is least among your numerous qualities

 Rome, 15 October 1561…”

In 1571 Sofonisba married Don Francisco de Moncada, who was the son of the Prince of Paterno, Viceroy of Sicily.  King Philip II facilitated the marriage, and paid her dowry of twelve thousand pounds.  She remained at the Spanish court for a further seven years after which time, and with Philip’s permission, she and her husband left Madrid and travelled to Palermo, Sicily. They arrived in Palermo in 1578 but sadly her husband died the following year.  The year following her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to visit her family back in Cremona and embarked on a sea passage from Palermo to Genoa.   She never made it back home as she fell in love with the young captain of the ship and the couple married shortly after, in January 1580, in Pisa.  Sofonisba was forty-seven years of age and was much older than her seafaring husband.  The couple settled down at the seaport of Genoa and with her husband’s money, along with a pension from Philip of Spain, the pair had a comfortable lifestyle and Sofonisba had her own quarters including an art studio within her husband’s family’s large house.  Her reputation as an accomplished artist spread throughout Europe and she received many visits from young aspiring painters.  The couple moved to Palermo and were visited in 1624 by the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who at the time was twenty-five years old and travelling around the island of Sicily recording his travels in words and sketches in his diary.  At the time, Sofonisba was ninety-two years old and van Dyck sketched Sofonisba sitting in a chair.   All around the sketch he wrote notes in Italian, a rough translation of which is:

“…portrait of the painter Signora Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on 12 July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it…”

It is interesting to note that according to van Dyck, Sofonisba was 96 years old in 1624 and this of course would make her birth date 1528 which is some four years earlier than the date given in a number of reference books.

Page from van Dyck's sketchbook
Page from van Dyck’s sketchbook

Van Dyck recorded in his diaries that her eyesight was weakened (it is thought she suffered from cataracts) but for a lady of 92 (or 96!) she was still mentally alert.  She had completed her last work in 1620 and had become a patron of the arts.  On November 16th 1625, Sofonisba died in Palermo aged 93.

On her birth centenary seven years later, her husband had a plaque placed on her tomb which read:
“…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…”

Sofonisba was not only appreciated in her own lifetime but continues to be appreciated in modern society albeit I had to admit her name was new to me, which gives you some idea as to my artistic knowledge!

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is an early self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola which she completed in 1556 and is entitled Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel.  It is housed at the Museum-Zamek in the town of Lancut in south-east Poland.

This is one of many self portraits by the artist, which she sent as gifts to prospective patrons as she could not respectably enter into competition with male artists for paid commissions.   Around this time, there was a highly respected author, Baldassare Castiglione, the count of Casatico, an Italian courtier and diplomat, who held great sway with the public with regards manners at the court and how one should behave if of noble birth.  The book, which had a widely circulated publication in 1528, was entitled The Courtier.  In a way it was also a torch-bearer for women’s equality as it advocated the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men and one can only presume that Sofonisba’s father had read the book and agreed with its conclusions as he made sure that his daughters were not only educated in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also that they were schooled in the courtly arts, such as music, writing, drawing, and painting.  Castiglione had written in his book about how aristocratic women of the court should dress.  He wrote:

“…she should always dress herself correctly and wear clothes that do not seem vain and frivolous…”

We can see by the way Sofonisba has depicted herself in this self portrait, wearing a modest black gown, lace collar and cuffs, the absence of jewellery and a simple hairstyle, which precluded any hint of easy virtue, that she had taken on board the advice given by Castiglione in his book.

Sofonisba looks out at us, brush in hand.  She is in the act of painting and is simultaneously the subject and object, the painter and the model of the painting.  Her painting is a re-working of the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, who it was believed, was the first to have painted a portrait of the Virgin but in this painting she has taken on the role of St Luke  and we see her painting of the Virgin and Child resting on the easel.

I love this self portrait.  There is nothing fancy about Sofonisba’s portrayal of herself.  It is an understated depiction.  It is a somewhat discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and its beauty and exquisite artwork challenged the belief in those days that women artists lacked artistic skills.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

5 thoughts on “Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola”

  1. Very nice, thanks. (The right spelling of the city is Paternò (with the accent on the o). I know, one of those pesky Italian accents). It’s interesting that the fact she couldn’t study anatomy directed her to self-portraiture, which was a northern European choice of subject, really.

  2. Fascinating post, thank you, I had not heard of this artist either, the only female artist I knew from (roughly) that period, or nearly a century later really, was Artemisia Gentileschi, so very glad to be introduced to Sofonisba Anguissola. As you say, a fine talent and What an extraordinary life too, at court in Madrid, then the young sea captain etc.. . Anyway, very nice piece, wonderfully researched and written. Thank you.

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I just wanted to tell you that you do an amazing job. Even though I rarely ever comment on your posts, yours is a treasure trove of knowledge. Thank you for doing this and happy holidays !

  4. Hello Jonathan,

    your blog is fantastic! I often look for new entries or use the search engine to find some artist whom I am interested in ( plenty of…). I have heard about Sofonisba Anguissola some years ago at a conference about female painters and afterwards I read one of the few Italian biographies about Sofonisba (no idea if it has been translated) Last summer I went to the UK and I succeeded in seeing the original page from Van Dyck’s sketchbook at the British Museum. Have you looked at it? It is not part of the permanent exhibition, but you can ask to look at it at the library.
    Never stop writing entries, you’re read and appreciated also in Italy!
    Kristina (North-Italian based Austrian)

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