Sofonisba Anguissola was, arguably, the first known woman artist to achieve international fame. A pioneer in portraiture and genre painting, Anguissola was the eldest child in a prestigious noble family from Cremona, a provincial northern Italian city wrapped in the Renaissance spirit. Her ambitious and progressive father, Amilcare Anguissola, gave his six daughters a humanist education and taught them to read Latin. Sofonisba and her sister Elena, following the growing acceptance of women pursuing painting careers, were apprentices for local artists Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti. Her manager-father quickly noted Anguissola’s talent and bolstered her career by widely promoting her work in Italy and abroad. Anguissola spent nearly 20 years as a painter for the Spanish Court in Madrid and was the Lady-in-Waiting and painting instructor for Élisabeth de Valois, Philip II of Spain’s third wife, with whom she developed a close friendship. She received praise from Michelangelo and Anthony van Dyck and her art is discussed in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy, 1550.
Anguissola’s numerous self-portraits present a dignified and serious subject wearing black jackets, high-necked white collars, no jewelry, and an austere hair style. The focus is not on her feminine beauty, but her creative and intellectual achievement. One of her best known paintings, The Chess Game, 1555, is an innovatively composed group narrative-- Anguissola’s sisters, who were also artists, are crowded around a chess game, with each sister looking to her next eldest sister as a role model, creating a female community of respect. Anguissola’s portraits infuse a quiet formality and clarity of line yet glow with warmth and intimacy.
Despite her artistic success during her lifetime, Anguissola’s fame slowly disappeared towards the 18th century with many of her works being ascribed to male artists. Scant scholarly attention existed about the artist until the 1970s, when historians and feminists began to spotlight the artist for her landmark achievement of opening up painting to women as a socially acceptable profession. Anguissola managed to remain in close touch with Italian artistic innovations over her seven decade career, following artistic trends as she moved from Cremona to Madrid, Sicily, Genoa, and finally Palermo. Financially independent, internationally recognized for her talent, and respected for her creativity and intelligence, Anguissola was a true Renaissance woman.
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