Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sophonisba Anguissola: Discrezione & Portraiture

By Kate Price
The Art of the Portrait Journal
Issue No. 46, 4th Quarter 2009

The Chess Game
Sofonisba Anguissola was a prodigy in portraiture and politics.  Born into the Cremonese minor nobility in 1535, she faced a harsh and vivid time, where the average Italian lifespan of 30 years intersected with the achievements of Michelangelo, Titan,  Correggio, and da Vinci.  Her life embodied both the exhilarating and bitter aspects.  Destined to be recognized internationally within her lifetime as a portrait painter of incredible skill, she would also face poverty.  Friend and instructor to royalty, she would also mourn their deaths, as well as the deaths of two husbands, parents, and sisters.  Yet she remained undaunted until her death at the venerable age of 96.  Her city, her era, and her family connections all set the stage for her unique and richly productive life, but above all her discrezione, her clever courage, made it possible.

As is often the case, remarkable people begin with remarkable parents.  Sofonisba’s father, Amilcare Anguissola, was a humanist as well as a cynical feminist.  Cynical in that he had both admirable and practical reasons for his decision to educate his six daughters.  The nobility had embraced a new definition of an ideal courtier[1] which proposed that women should be as well educated as men, albeit in ‘appropriate’ subjects.  Amilcare knew that if his daughters were to make advantageous matches, they would need reputations as close to this ideal as possible to reduce the need for dowries, of which they had none.  His decision to educate his daughters in painting, however, caused quite a stir.  Angissola’s reasoning was, “the nobility and worth of his two children should make the profession of the painter noble and respected in this city,”[2] elevating it from hobby or craft.

Self Portrait
At the age of 10[3], Sofonisba was apprenticed to Bernardo Campi, though not as a boy might have been.  She did not work in the workshop, but rather in a sequestered part of the artist’s home, chaperoned by his wife.  This was one of the prices Sofonisba was to pay for her gender: she could not study anatomy as men might, she worked primarily on a smaller scale, she could not sell her art but only give it as gifts, and much of popular subject matter was inappropriate for a lady to paint.  Instead of dwelling on her limitations, Sofonisba maintained an educational correspondence with Michelangelo facilitated by her father, mailing drawings to him, and receiving drawings which to paint in return.  A series of instructors and influences came and went: Campi, Michelangelo, and Bernardino Gatti, each with their own widely varied and distinct influences.  Sofonisba was able to make use of the most cutting edge painting styles and techniques, such as the new practice of painting on canvas, and the style of Northern European genre painting almost a century before it was popular.  Yet her voice was unique. 

By 18, Sofonisba was a lady-in-waiting and painting instructor to the young queen, Isabel of Valois (de la paz).  Her entry to court was both bold and deft.  Girolamo Neri, the duke of Mantua’s envoy to court, described the event:

On the night of the wedding, the king proposed to dance [...]  since no one wanted to begin, Signore Ferrante Gonzaga [...] asked the young Cremonese who paints and who came to stay with the queen, which opened the way for many who danced after them.

Sofonisba, on her first night in court, danced with a Prince, a duke, and then asked King Philip II himself to join her.  This began a close relationship with the king, his wives and offspring, which would last until her death.  It also marked a shift in her painting style; the formal constraints of court portraiture marked her work, just as her dress in her numerous self-portraits became more ornate.  Still, she strove to portray her subjects with unaffected humor, warmth and humanity, focusing on their personalities and the beauty of their features without degrading her art with falsehood.
Bernardo Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola

As her life went on, Anguissola endured the deaths of beloved monarchs, sisters and husbands, erratic pay, hostile in-laws and the loss of her sight.  However, in love and painting she triumphed.  Sofonisba's’ second husband was her choice,  a freedom she earned through political and social standing, and by all accounts a happy union.  More importantly for us, she never stopped painting or teaching others.  Her painting The Chess Game and Bernardo Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola are truly marvels of skill.  When Anthony Van Dyke visited her in her old age, she held his paintings very, very close to her face and gave him advice regarding his paintings, and to show his regard, he painted her portrait.

Now, after her name was lost for four centuries and her work misattributed to the male artists who influenced her and the male artists that she in turn influenced, Sofonisba's art and biography have finally enjoyed a resurrection through the dedicated work of scholars and museums. 

[1] Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano
[2] As reported by Alessandro Lamo, a Cremonese contemporary
[3] This is disputed...the age ranges from 10 to 14

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