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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Sofonisba Anguissola was a true rarity as a successful female painter from the Italian Renaissance and her part in this highly significant movement is starting to receive more focus in recent years.

To even receive an apprenticeship as a painter was extremely rare for a woman at this time and she had the added barrier of being from a relatively poor family who would not normally be able to support her in such a career. Art was very much for the middle classes at this point, whatever your gender. She was born in Northern Italy in a town called Cremona and had her interest in art initially pricked during her standard education which did feature creative pastimes. She was a bold character who quickly realised that she would not be able to make the most of her life in this region, and would have to travel to one of the bigger cities, which she did after her interest in art had solidified. Even in her late teens she was starting to show promise as an artist and whilst some would dismiss her out of hand, because of her gender, there were others who simply judged her on the merits of her early promise.

The Italian Renaissance was a collection of a number of significant schools were around the Papal States plus some additional artists who never quite fitted into any of these geographical and stylistic categories. Anguissola had her choice of all of these different regions with which to learn from the masters and also to promote her own abilities. She chose to spread her time across a number of regions, in order to build a strong series of contacts within the industry and also to better understand the full breadth of styles that were present at that time. There was no modern media from which to learn from and so for many centuries artists would have no other option than to see some of the finest artworks in person, with their own eyes. She would also go outside the boundaries of Italy, moving to Spain after an invitation from Queen Elizabeth of Valois.

As a general rule, the finest female artists from past centuries have tended to portray domestic scenes, which sadly reflected the limiting roles within society that most of them had. If we can put that societal criticism to one side, we can be positive about the fact that female artists in each major art movement could produce art which offered an alternative perspective. Anguissola was no different in that regard, and spent much of her early work as an artist depicting her friends and family. Such settings were easy to engineer and also help us to better understand the role of women within Italy during the 16th and 17th century. Typically, male artists had only focused on women if they were of a particularly prominent position and would rarely feature their domestic lives in the same honest, charming way that Anguissola managed to do. It was not until her move to Spain that she moved away from this personal content, and was forced to follow her patron's instructions precisely.

"...[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..."

Giorgio Vasari

Despite her considerable travels, the style of Anguissola is generally regarded as being Cremonese in the main. She had been fortunate to have been taught by a number of local artists alongside her education, prior to travelling around the country and many of the hallmarks of this early stage would remain in her work throughout her career. Cremona was impacted by the styles of Parma and Mantua and signature elements to those approaches included a truly delicate touch that few other regions could match. Perhaps her female sensibilities also allowed her to connect emotionally with some of the figures portrayed, in a way that some male artists from this period could simply not manage. That has been an advantage for a number of female painters in all manner of art movements and this trait is becoming more obvious as society starts to give a greater focus to more of these talented women.

Anguissola would achieve such fame within her own lifetime that she would frequently be asked to produce self portraits for a variety of patrons. Whilst entirely behind her talents, they may also have seen her somewhat of a novelty as well, within this male-dominated society. The last portrait produced of her was actually just a year before her death when she was aged 92 and came from Anthony van Dyck, underlining the distance that her reputation had travelled. At the time of writing there are around fifty paintings attributed to her hand, and this looks unlikely to change significantly in the future, even though Renaissance paintings are occasionally discovered and attributed to masters of this period every few years or so. The intention of art galleries to be more inclusive should ensure that this artist's career receives a greater focus in future generations, particularly in institutions that already own some of her work.

The artist left behind a highly significant legacy which was partly due to her work, and partly her gender. Several paintings from her career were copied and used as inspiration by a number of notable names from across the European art world. Most famous, perhaps, was Peter Paul Rubens who took elements of some of her portraits into his own career and he is known to have studied her career in depth. Caravaggio has also been suggested as having referred to several famous artworks from her hand in order to inspire his own creative genius, though these claims have been doubted by some. She has become a famous name within her native Cremona, as you would expect, and the town has named a number of local points of interest after her, including a school. She would also, surely, have been proud to learn of the number of female artists who entered this profession, in part, because of her own success. These include the likes of Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Sofonisba came from a large family, entirely typical for the time, with five of her six siblings also being girls. She was therefore mainly around girls and women in her upbringing and used them as inspiration for a number of early portraits. Whilst by no means rich, the family was from a good background going back several generations and this inherent education allowed them to look beyond the normal roles in society for girls at that time. Sofonisba was actually just one of several girls in the family to show a real passion for painting and whilst the parents encouraged them all to continue for as long as they wanted, it soon became clear that it was she who held the most promise. That said, they all achieved genuine careers and can be seen as part of a successful family that overcame the potential pitfall of having so many daughters within a society such as this. Amilcare Anguissola, her father, refused to accept limitations on the lives of his children and constantly used whatever influence he had to progress their development, whilst remaining mindful of only encouraging them into paths that they were already passionate about following.