Self-portrait, Sofonisba Anguissola, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark

In a time when women were seen as objects to be represented in art, not as artists themselves, Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the first female artist to achieve international recognition. Throughout her long career, she was respected and appreciated by the likes of artists Michelangelo and Anthony van Dyck, and art historian Giorgio Vasari.  She is well-known for her self-portraits and family paintings. She painted at least 12 self-portraits at a time when it was uncommon to do so.

This chapter explores how an aristocratic background and a supportive father shaped Sofonisba’s artistic career, and how combining those privileges with her talent helped her break down barriers and blaze a trail for women to be accepted as students of art.

Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy in 1532 to Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzone, both of noble families. She was the eldest of seven children. The family lived near the site of the battle of the Trebia, a famous battle between the Romans and Carthaginians. Sofonisba’s name is derived from the tragic Carthaginian noble figure, Sophonisba.

Inspired by reading Il Cortigiano by Baldassare Castiglione, a book of manners in courtly life, Amilcare Anguissola encouraged his six daughters to follow their talents and supported them in pursuing a well-rounded education. With his encouragement, Sofonisba and four of her sisters took up painting. It was soon clear that she was the most skilled.

Sofonisba couldn’t become an artist’s apprentice – that was a route for men only. Female artists usually only got around that by having a father or brother to teach them. Fortunately, for the Anguissolas, they had an aristocratic background, and so at age 14, Sofonisba and her sister Elena were sent to study with the esteemed portrait and religious painter Bernardino Campi and were treated like paying guests in his home. Once Campi left Cremona, Sofonisba continued her studies with Bernardino Gatti.

Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, unknown artist, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, unknown artist, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark

Aged 22, Anguissola travelled to Rome and met Michelangelo. She showed him a drawing of a laughing girl and he challenged her to draw a crying boy. She sent him a drawing of her brother – Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish. Michelangelo instantly recognised her talent. For the next two years, Anguissola studied informally with Michelangelo, who offered her guidance and gave her his notebooks to draw from in her own style.

In 1577, her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for the ‘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, 1553-1554, Sofonisba Anguissola, Wikimedia Commons after Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Public Domain Mark
Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish, 1553-1554, Sofonisba Anguissola, Wikimedia Commons after Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Public Domain Mark
Virgin and Child, 1542-1623, Sofonisba Anguissola, Statens Museum for Kunst, CC0
Virgin and Child, 1542-1623, Sofonisba Anguissola, Statens Museum for Kunst, CC0

It is believed that Sofonisba’s father, though open-minded for his time, wanted to secure dowries for his six daughters. Underlying their well-rounded education and artistic training was the desire for them to become accomplished wives and mothers. The idea was never for Anguissola to be an artist by profession. Despite this, she received more support for her artistic training than did her female contemporaries. Yet she still could not study anatomy, which was deemed inappropriate for women, making it difficult for her to attempt complex compositions for large-scale religious paintings.

Anguissola experimented with new styles of portraiture, setting subjects - often herself and her family - informally, which was highly unusual. Her paintings gave viewers a glimpse of aristocratic daily life. She became known for this style and received commissions from across Italy.  

The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist's sisters playing chess), 1555, Sofonisba Anguissola, Wikimedia Commons after National Museum Poznań, Public Domain Mark
The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist's sisters playing chess), 1555, Sofonisba Anguissola, Wikimedia Commons after National Museum Poznań, Public Domain Mark

Her self-portraits, on the other hand, reflected how she saw herself as a woman and artist, often portraying virtue and modesty. This self-portrait highlights her double representation as both painter and model through the book she is holding which reads, ‘Sofonisba Anguissola Virgo Seipsam Fecit 1554’, meaning, ‘Sofonisba Anguissola Created by the Young Maiden Herself 1554’.

Self-portrait, 1554, Sofonisba Anguissola, Kunsthistorisches Museum, In Copyright
Self-portrait, 1554, Sofonisba Anguissola, Kunsthistorisches Museum, In Copyright

By 1558, she was an established painter and at 26 she left Italy upon receiving an invitation from Philip II, King of Spain, to join the Spanish court. She served in Madrid as the court painter and lady-in-waiting to the Queen Elisabeth of Valois. She gained the admiration of the young queen and spent the following years painting many official court portraits.

During her 14-year residence, she guided the artistic development of Queen Elisabeth and influenced the art made by the queen’s daughters. Once the young queen died in 1568, Philip II decided to arrange Anguissola’s marriage. In 1571, she married Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, who was said to be supportive of her painting.

Portrait sketch, Sofonisba Anguissola, Bibliothèque nationale de France, No Copyright - Other Known Legal Restrictions
Portrait sketch, Sofonisba Anguissola, Bibliothèque nationale de France, No Copyright - Other Known Legal Restrictions

It is believed that she and her husband left Spain to settle in Paternò Italy from 1573 to 1579. She received a royal pension of 100 ducats, enabling her to continue working and tutoring artists. Her husband died in 1579.

Two years later, when travelling by sea to Cremona, she fell in love with the ship’s captain, Orazio Lomellino. They married in Pisa in 1584 and lived in Genoa where she became the city’s lead portrait painter.

Her husband’s fortune and the pension from Philip II allowed Anguissola to paint freely. She became quite famous and many artists came to visit and learn from her.

Portrait of Sofonisba, 1624, Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons after Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public Domain Mark
Portrait of Sofonisba, 1624, Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons after Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public Domain Mark

In 1624, young Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck visited 92-year-old Anguissola, seeking her advice on painting.

Van Dyck drew the last portrait ever made of her during this visit. It is said that van Dyck claimed their conversation taught him more about the principles of painting than anything else in his life.

A year later, she returned to Sicily and became an affluent financier of the arts before she died in 1625 at age 93. Seven years later, on what would have been her 100th birthday, her husband engraved her tomb with text including this dedication:

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 Orazio Lomellino, Inscription on Anguissola’s tomb

Second-wave feminism in the 1970s saw Anguissola’s importance rediscovered. She is regarded as one of the most influential painters of the early modern period. Her works influenced generations of artists, for example, Caravaggio was inspired by her Asdrubale Bitten By a Crayfish for his Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Her success opened doors for women, such as Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, to pursue professional careers as artists.

Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, unknown artist, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, unknown artist, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark