Day 90 – Sofonisba, too

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait, 1556, Łańcut Castle, Poland.

I promised you more about Sofonisba Anguissola, and so today I bring you several of her paintings – I am only focussing on this particular self portrait because it makes the perfect companion to both the double portrait of Bernardino Campi painting her, which she painted (Picture Of The Day 77), and the self portrait by Caterina van Hemessen (POTD 28). The latter was the first self portrait that is known of an artist at their easel, and, as far as I know, this is the second.

I am fairly sure that Hemessen’s self portrait shows her painting her own self portrait, whereas Anguissola is painting a Madonna and Child. Apart from that difference, and the position of the palettes, the works are rather similar. We see the artist seated on the right side of the image, looking towards us, paintbrush in their right hand, and mahl stick in their left.  Sofonisba holds hers with a refined elegance, resting it on the unpainted edge of her canvas, and using it to support her right wrist, poised to continue painting the Christ child’s left arm – which, to my mind, looks finished anyway. We again have to ask, as we did with her before, who is she looking at and why? She can’t be looking at Mary and Jesus, for obvious reasons, and it is unlikely she would be looking at a model (this painting is more likely to have been based on drawings). It seems likely that she is just looking to us, so that we can acknowledge her skill. Her choice of a religious image is interesting, as all of her surviving works are portraits. But here she is showing us that she is available to fulfil religious commissions as well, painting in a subdued, mannerist style. The long right arm of Jesus, curving round his right flank, and the strong twist of his head is reminiscent of paintings by Bronzino, who was at the height of his powers when Sofonisba was painting this self portrait. Setting the holy characters in front of the base of a classical column also shows that she was au fait with the work of her contemporaries. 

Unlike the other female artists we have seen, Sofonisba was not the daughter of a painter. Her father, Amilcare, was a nobleman from Cremona, although not an especially wealthy one. He seems to have been strongly influenced by Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, which, as well as discussing the character of the ideal courtier (male), implies that women should also receive an all-round education. Amilcare made sure that this is precisely what his six daughters got. 

Sofonisba was the eldest of seven children, and in 1546, when she was 14, both she and Elena, the second daughter, were effectively apprenticed to Bernardino Campi (who we saw in the double portrait, POTD 77), living with him for three years, and only leaving because he moved to Milan. Elena gave up painting when she became a nun, but Sofonisba continued to study with Bernardino Gatti, a student of Correggio, and became sufficiently adept that she ended up teaching three more of her sisters – Lucia, Europa and Anna Maria. Lucia died around the age of 30, but some of her paintings survive, while the other two gave up on marrying.

In 1554 Sofonisba headed down to Rome, where the story goes that she was introduced to Michelangelo. She is supposed to have shown the elderly master a drawing of a girl laughing, which he admired, but then challenged her to draw someone crying, which is supposedly more difficult.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish, c. 1554, Capodimonte, Naples.

The drawing shows her one brother, Asdrubale, being bitten by a crayfish. Michelangelo apparently recognised her talent, and offered her more advice, even informal tuition. However, I really need to look into this incident – Michelangelo was a notorious old grump, and the idea that he would be interested in the work of a young woman seems inherently unlikely. However, if it turns out to be true, then how much more remarkable a man he was! Whatever the origins of this fragile drawing, though, it is significant that it shows members of Sofonisba’s own family. Her most famous works show that however good her education, and whatever her talent, as a woman she was, as often as not, restricted to the domestic sphere. In her self portrait of 1556 she may have shown herself painting a Madonna and Child, and a rather fine painting it would be if she actually executed it, but most of her paintings are portraits, and a substantial number are of her own family, or herself.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum, Poznan.

Here are three of her sisters, for example, in a charming group portrait which is signed and dated 1555 – an inscription runs around the edge of the chess board:

Sofonisba Anguissola virgin daughter of Amilcare painted these three sisters and a maid from life 

Clearly the education was paying off! I still can’t get my head around chess (but then, it might help if I actually wanted to…) From from left to right we see Lucia, Europa and Minerva, the 3rd, 5th and 4th daughters respectively. Minerva appears again, and very well dressed, in another family portrait, painted about 3 years later.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of the Artist’s Family, 1558-9, The Nivaagaard Collection, Copenhagen.

This is the only surviving portrait of Sofonisba’s father Amilcare. As befits the head of the family he is seated between his son and daughter. He looks out towards us, acknowledging Asdrubale with a protective gesture, his left hand on his back.  Asdrubale himself is standing by his father’s side and ready to take over the responsibilities of the family – however young he might be. He looks up to Dad (in more ways than one, I suspect) holding his father’s right hand, which rest on his lap, with his own, thus communicating the continuation of the dynasty. He is a little gentleman, and as such has the right to bear arms – the hilt of his sword projects from under his left wrist. 

Despite the family setting, Sofonisba’s reputation grew, and grew quite remarkably. In 1559 she was invited to Madrid by Philip II, to act as an attendant to the Infanta, and lady-in-waiting to Philip’s third wife, Elizabeth de Valois, whom she also taught to paint. She adapted her style to the more formal requirements of the Court, although tragically much of the work she carried out in Spain was destroyed by the devastating fire of 1734 which led to the complete rebuilding of the Alcázar – now the Palacio Real. In 1579 Sofonisba returned to Italy, and would have settled back in Cremona had she not met the captain of the ship – a Genoese nobleman – and married him (as it happens she was already widowed, Philip II having provided the dowry for her first marriage to a Sicilian nobleman). In 1624 she was visited by the young Anthony van Dyck, who found her mind to be very sharp – she was 92 at the time. He sketched her in his notebook, and wrote down her advice. He had arrived just in time, as she died the following year.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait, 1610, Gottfried Keller-Stiftung, Winterthur, Switzerland.

Fourteen years before van Dyck’s visit, at the age of 78, she painted this remarkable self portrait. She was clearly one of those artists whose work just kept getting better. Vasari, whose second edition of ‘The Lives’ was published while she was in Spain, was clearly impressed:

Sofonisba worked with deeper study and greater grace than any woman of our times at problems of design, for not only has she learned to draw, paint, and copy from nature, and reproduce most skillfully works by other artists, but she has on her own painted some most rare and beautiful paintings.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

6 thoughts on “Day 90 – Sofonisba, too

  1. Hi Richard – another wonderful post
    As you know we are going to Venice on Sunday (driving from our house in the South of France and it may be the chance of a life time)!would love a few tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dominique! Thank you! I’m seeing if I can get London Art Studies to send you the Venice film – it’s not that long, but what I probably recommended was taking one of the boats across the lagoon to Murano and Burano, and just wandering, and from Burano taking the extra ferry to Torcello – it’s great to be there at the end of the day when almost everyone has left (although don’t miss the last boat back!). Cipriani has a restaurant on Torcello which is apparently great, though I’ve never been, and the best on Burano is said to be Gatto Nero… On Venice itself I’d go to The Scuola di San Giorgio for the wonderful Carpaccios, San Zaccaria and Santa Maria dei Frari for the fantastic Bellinis and Titians, and the Scuola di San Rocco for the best Tintorettos. The best view is from the Campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore, and its a great Palladio Church too, as is the Redentore on the Giudecca. Buy a season ticket for the vaporetto, as there is nothing better than just jumping on and off at will, and it is the best way to see the city and surrounding islands. If you’re flying, take a taxi to Venice – i.e. a speedboat. It’s pricey but worth it! As Thomas Mann said, the only way to arrive is by sea… but then, the view on stepping out of the train station isn’t bad! Book in advance for dinner at La Zucca… small, cosy, and different to all the other restaurants. my favourite restaurant always used to be San Trovaso, not far from the Academia, but apparently that’s not what it was. Have a great weekend!


      1. Thank you so much Richard, that is brilliant. We are driving from our house near Nice so that should be interesting! We were in Venice 4 years ago with the St Mary’s Campion choir (who sang in San Marco for the Sat evening Mass which was magical) but it was July, hot, and extremely crowded! Although we did get to Padua too which was amazing. We are just hoping we will have it all to ourselves this time, the opportunity of a lifetime!
        Thanks again and will report back!

        Liked by 1 person

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