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Sofonisba Anguissola: Biography & Works

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the biography and work of the Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Explore the life of a talented woman in the men's world of that time. Also, discover the main characteristics of her paintings.

Who Was Sofonisba Anguissola?

When you think about Renaissance artists, who comes to mind? Some of the most common answers might be Da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Botticelli - all primarily men. It was not easy for a woman to gain recognition in a world dominated by men. However, a talented Italian woman named Sofonisba Anguissola had a very successful artistic career in 16th-century Europe and is regarded as one of the first female painters to obtain international fame.

Sofonisba Anguissola (circa 1532 - 1625), was an Italian painter of the late Renaissance. She worked for the Spanish monarchy, and also developed her career as a portrait-painter in Italy. Today, a number of her works have survived and are exhibited around the world.

Self-portrait of Sofonisba in 1554
Self-portrait of Sofonisba in 1554

Life of Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola's exact date of birth is unknown, but it has often been estimated as the year 1532. She was born in Cremona, Italy, to a noble family. Sofonisba was the oldest of six sisters who all showed artistic talents. The girls were encouraged by their father to develop their skills and given a well-rounded education that included the arts. However, only Sofonisba went on to become a recognized artist.

In her twenties, Sofonisba Anguissola went to Rome to expand her artistic knowledge. There, she was introduced to Michelangelo, who gave her guidance and influenced her style. In 1559, she was appointed by the Spanish court. She traveled to Madrid to work with Queen Elizabeth of Valois, who was herself an amateur painter. Anguissola stayed there for about 14 years, painting royal portraits and giving painting classes to the Queen and her daughters. Anguissola's time in Spain gained her the confidence of the crown and made her a well-known and well-paid artist.

After the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Spanish king, Phillip II, set up a marriage for Anguissola with the Viceroy of Sicily. Anguissola moved with her husband to Sicily and lived there until his death six years later. She then fell in love with the captain of a merchant ship in 1581. The couple married and moved to Genoa, where they lived for over 35 years. By that time, Anguissola was considerably famous, and her wealth allowed her to become a patron and supporter of young artistic talent. She also became a prominent portrait painter in Genoa.

Toward the end of her life, Anguissola moved back to Sicily, where she began to lose her sight. Unable to paint, she became a generous sponsor of arts. She died in 1625 at a very advanced age for the time (she was probably 93).

Self-portrait, 1610
Self-portrait, 1610

Works by Sofonisba Anguissola

During the Renaissance, men were educated to follow a profession, while women were educated for the role of wife. Women were certainly not allowed to become apprentices to master artists. Although there were some female artists, they usually came from families with an artist father who took the role of master. However, Anguissola received education in arts under the tutorship of a master, something uncommon for a woman.

In her early years, Anguissola mostly painted family portraits and self-portraits. Her pieces rarely had a specific name, and although she is also known for her drawings, she often used oil paints on canvas.

Throughout Anguissola's life, her work focused on portraits, including several self-portraits. She created vivid representations of her male and female models, which included herself. She often used intense colors and tended to use light to highlight the depicted subject in front of a dark background. She paid special attention to details of hands and faces to turn these elements into focal points.

The Chess Game, 1555
The Chess Game, 1555

Anguissola always painted herself as a very modest and solemn woman in her self-portraits, often carrying books or even painting. Such a depiction followed the prevailing social convention, but at the same time, showed her intellect and talent. Anguissola was aware that an intellectual yet refined image was important for her as a professional female artist.

Self-portrait at the easel, 1556
Self-portrait at the easel, 1556

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