Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman Artist


Did you know that Michelangelo had a female pupil? Did you know that she gave painting lessons to the Spanish queen? This week’s Female Artist Spotlight is dedicated to Sofonisba Anguissola.

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) has always stood out to me as an interesting figure in art history, not in the least because of what she achieved alongside her more historically well-known contemporaries. Which is not to say that the their fame is undeserved – but rather that for centuries Art with a capital A was dominated by men for a litany of historical and social reasons, and the origin myth of the “Great Artist,” who possessed the innate, mystical “Genius” that allowed him to produce great art, became so entrenched that those very pertinent reasons were often obscured (See Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”).

Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556. Lancut Castle, Poland.

The Italian Renaissance was my favorite historical period before I began studying art history. As a student, when I learned about Sofonisba Anguissola and her contemporaries, I was thrilled to see that there were in fact women artists during the Renaissance.

Anguissola was one of the first women artists to achieve international fame in her own time, and that in and of itself is impressive. Giorgio Vasari, who invented some of those Great Artist origin stories in his Lives of the Artists, called her “most excellent in painting.”

Anguissola was the daughter of a nobleman from Cremona, a city in northern Italy. She and her five sisters were all given a Renaissance humanist education, and their parents encouraged their individual artistic talents. In the context of 16th-century Italy, there were few options for women outside marriage or the convent. And with five daughters in need of dowries, their father would have known that artistic talents would have made them more unusual and attractive in the marriage market. Several of Sofonisba’s sisters were also considered promising painters.

Sofonisba studied with Bernadino Campi, a regarded local painter, before traveling to Rome when she was twenty-two, where she was introduced to Michelangelo. Michelangelo asked for a drawing from her, and was impressed enough that Sofonisba subsequently studied with him informally for two years. Formal artistic training and apprenticeship, in which one of the most important aspects was the study of anatomy and the nude, was barred to women. Genre scenes, still-lifes, and portraits were considered acceptable subjects for women. Thus Anguissola is primarily known as a portrait painter, producing multiple self-portraits and portraits of her family members and patrons.

A few years later Sofonisba was sufficiently well-known and was invited to the court of King Philip II of Spain to serve as a court painter and lady-in-waiting, and to give Queen Elisabeth of Valois painting lessons. She painted numerous formal portraits of the royals and court figures during this period. Her paintings were in great demand, and both Michelangelo and Vasari complimented their naturalism. 


Portrait of Elisabeth of Valois, Queen Consort of Spain, 1565. Prado Museum, Madrid.


She also married twice: first to a nobleman chosen for her by the king, and when he died, she met and fell in love with a ship’s captain, married him, and moved to Sicily. Unlike many women artists who unfortunately had to give up their art upon marriage, she continued to paint. She was known and well-regarded, and other artists visited her, including the young Anthony van Dyck. She died in her 90s, which is pretty impressive for the 17th century, having had a long and successful career. 


Self-Portrait, 1610. Gottfried Keller Foundation.


While I acknowledge that Anguissola was able to pursue a career as an artist thanks to her social status and family support and upbringing, and that such a career would not have been an option for other artistically inclined women, it is still remarkable that she was able to accomplish what she did.

A Game of Chess (Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters Playing Chess), 1555. National Museum in Poznan, Poland.

One of her most famous works is a painting of her sisters Lucia, Europa, and Minerva playing chess, nicknamed A Game of Chess (1555). Sofonisba was only in her early 20s when she painted this work. Her sisters are sumptuously dressed, and the chessboard sits atop an imported textile rug; this painting is definitely set in an aristocratic home. And not only is this a personal painting of the artist’s family, but it is also important that she paints her sisters engaged in an intellectual game, not posed passively as seen in many other portraits of women. Lucia holds the black queen in her hand, while Minerva holds up her hand to contest a move, and Europa grins at her sisters. In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece, and the idea of powerful women is certainly in play here (pun intended). Vasari commented on this painting as well, writing,

“I must relate that I saw this year in the house of her father at Cremona, in a picture executed with great diligence by her hand, portraits of her three sisters in the act of playing chess, and with them an old woman of the household, all done with such care and such spirit, that they have all the appearance of life, and are wanting nothing save speech.”

One has the sense that Anguissola has captured the vitality and personalities of her sisters in this domestic scene, while also emphasizing the intellectual and artistic talents of the Anguissola sisters. She signed the painting with a Latin inscription set into the side of the chessboard, a reference to her education and as well as to famous painters from antiquity.
That vitality and naturalism of her portraits and self-portraits secured her reputation, and she deserves to be remembered as a Renaissance woman and an intriguing artist.


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