The Artist Sofonisba Anguissola

Born around the year 1532, Sofonisba Anguissola was an Italian painter who lived during the Renaissance. Her work exhibits facets of late Renaissance painting. Although women painters of exceptional talent lived during this period, it was, nevertheless, unusual. While her sex and class in society prohibited her from attempting religious and history paintings on a grand scale, she did infuse her portraits with characteristics not typical of Renaissance artists—their informality and intimacy reflect Anguissola’s artistic singularity.

Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy. The eldest of seven, she had five sisters and one brother. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, was a member of Genoa’s minor nobility and her mother also hailed from an aristocratic family. Anguissola’s father supported her pursuit of art; three of her sisters also pursued painting. All of the Anguissola children received excellent educations. At age fourteen, Anguissola, along with her sister Elena, was allowed to study under the artist Bernardino Campi. When he left Cremona she continued her studies with the artist Bernardino Gatti. In 1554 while in Rome, Anguissola met Michelangelo and impressed him with her sketches. While in Rome she received some informal instruction from the master.

Anguissola’s talent helped her achieve fame early in life. In 1559 she was invited to become a member of the Spanish Court where some of her best-known paintings, like Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Spain with a Zibellino, were produced. Her position as court painter allowed her to achieve fame as a female artist on an unprecedented level. She was esteemed by the royal court and her work was highly regarded.

In 1571 Anguissola married Don Francisco de Moncada, the son of Sicily’s viceroy. The pair continued to reside in Spain and Anguissola continued to paint with the support of her husband. In 1578 they left Spain for Sicily. Her husband died in the city of Palermo the following year. In 1580 Anguissola married Orazio Lomellino after meeting him on his ship. They lived in Genoa where he also supported the continuance of her career. Anguissola lived a long life, particularly so by Renaissance standards. She died in 1625 at the age of ninety-three. After her eyesight failed and she could no longer paint, she became a dedicated patron of the arts.

Anguissola was a celebrated artist throughout her life. Some of her best-known works include The Chess Game (1555); Portrait of Amilcare, Minerva, and Asdrubale Anguissola (1557); and her Self-portrait of 1610. Anguissola infused her paintings with the vibrancy of life even when the subjects were heavily weighted with rich fabrics and jewels. Her family portraits display tenderness and happiness—two traits not regularly at the forefront of Renaissance painting.