During high summer of the year 1624 a brilliant young painter Anthony van Dyck visited a nonagenarian widow in her home in Palermo. She was blind but still mentally acute. After their conversation, van Dyck claimed he learned more art from her than from studying some of the Old Masters. The woman was a living link to the age of Michelangelo, Titian and the court of Philip II of the Bourbon monarchy. Her name was Sofonisba Anguissola.
Michael W. Cole’s new monograph on Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) revises her corpus of around 150 works and discusses her art in the light of what relatively little we know of her life. She worked with sisters and has been considered alongside other female artists, so a monographic treatment for her is uncommon. The state of expert scholarship on her art is uneven, primarily due to the paucity of signed paintings leaving attribution uncertain. That figure of 150 individual works could be fewer than 50 authentic works.
The artist was born into a downwardly mobile aristocratic family in Cremona. There is some debate over her actual date of birth, with some assigning it to c. 1531/2. Cole gives c. 1535, which will become tangentially significant later. Her father Hamilcare had a classical education and named his children after figures from ancient history and mythology. Hamilcare wrote letters on Sofonisba’s behalf to potential patrons and sent sample paintings and drawings to demonstrate her accomplishment. (Michelangelo apparently received two drawings and was complimentary.) Sofonisba’s father effectively acted as her manager until she moved to Spain.
The eldest Anguissola sister took holy orders; the others were sent to apprentice with Bernadino Campi – a highly unusual decision that led to the sisters (and especially Sofonisba) becoming notable public figures in Cremona, celebrated for their ladylike accomplishment as well as artistic ability. Sofonisba (hereafter called “Anguissola”) later worked under Bernadino Gatti. There is debate about a picture apparently showing Gatti in the act of painting Anguissola. It has been assigned to her but it may be by Gatti and a sign of him wishing to associate with a student of noble birth and who had gone on to achieve royal esteem. Cole inclines toward assigning the painting to Gatti.
As a young artist, Anguissola made her name with striking portraits (some of family members) and many self-portraits, including miniatures. She is especially notable as the Renaissance artist who painted self-portraits more frequently than any other. She worked in the prevailing Late Renaissance/Mannerist style, which rested upon artificiality and placed the striking and unusual over harmony and idealism.
The Chess Game (1555) depicts three of the painter’s younger sisters alongside a servant. They are engaged in noble pastime which demanded intellect and reason (the domain of men) rather than in the manual handicrafts usually befitting womankind. This also suggests these women belong to the upper classes, reinforced by their fine clothing. All of her art exhibits deficiencies in anatomy – which may be attributable to lack of access to nude models – and in perspective, which could have been corrected by consulting the many treatises on the subject.
Anguissola arrived Spain in 1559, to become a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Isabel de Valois (1545-1568) and her daughters. She went as a lady of culture, able to sing and converse on the arts; she was also to act as painting tutor to the queen. She did paint portraits there but it was not her primary function there. For her years there, she was documented more as a courtier than artist. Many of the Spanish pictures are unsigned, adding to confusion about attribution, particularly vis-à-vis Alonso Sánchez Coello. It may be that Anguissola, employed as a lady-in-waiting and royal tutor, was reticent about art made in her private time. (The division between public and private life in the court is a rather fluid distinction.) A seriously abraded portrait of Isabel survives. One wonders about what the original would have told us about artist and sitter. Cole suggests that the stultifying rigidity of court portraiture in Spain was possibly alleviated by the subtleties of dress, comportment and attributes which would have been discernible to members of the court.
The death of Isabel in 1568 entailed the dispersal of her courtiers. Anguissola was subject to an arranged marriage but she proved intractable and it was not until 1573 that a marriage contract was concluded. She was at oldest about 42, at youngest 38. Cole’s late birth date for Anguissola means that she was still of childbearing years in his timeline. Hitherto, Anguissola had assiduously maintained her independence and the burden (and danger) of childbirth. The wishes of King Philip II were not ones even Anguissola could oppose. By whichever cause (natural or willed), Anguissola did not fall pregnant (or at least give birth) and she was able to sustain her devotion to art.
In 1573 she went to Italy with her husband, governor to a town in Sicily. He drowned in a pirate attack in 1578. In 1579 she remarried and moved to Palermo, where she remained until her death. There is little to commend her religious paintings. They are not attractive or original and derivative. Much of her late works painted in Palermo are lost.
Anguissola signed her early work SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA VIRGO – a signal of her independence – and was potentially inspired by the paintings of Catharina van Hemessen. It would be hard to co-opt her into the sisterhood. We have very little writing by her, so it is hard to assess her attitude towards her situation as a woman painter. What little we can glean is from decoding her art. Cole suggests that interpreting her as a woman artist or thinking of her career progression is not the only approach, indeed, not the most useful. Cole believes that Anguissola’s significance rests more in her example than her art. “She showed that a life devoted to painting was a real possibility for women, and she showed what such a life might look like.”
The first half of the book is a survey of the artist’s life and work and issues surrounding attribution and interpretation of her paintings. The catalogue section treats works in groups of varying connection to the hand of the artist, including lost works, copies and so forth. Colour illustrations are used, though many are small. Both experts and enthusiasts will find Cole’s scholarship approachable and clear-eyed. This book is a serious and honest examination of a second-tier Mannerist painter who painted a handful of excellent portraits.
Michael W. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work, Princeton University Press, 2019, hardback, 208pp, fully col. illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 691 19832 3
© Alexander Adams 2020
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