Home » Pioneer and hero: Sofonisba Anguissola

Pioneer and hero: Sofonisba Anguissola

From the mid 1500s we begin to see really notable self-portraits by women trickling through. My favourites are by Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian woman of minor nobility who, from her childhood was determined to paint. The problem for her and her peers was that there was no tradition or culture that gave women permission to be artists. They were working on a truly blank canvas. More than 30 works by Anguissola survive and in examining them we see her forging a way to be an artist from within the constraints of a culture where only two options were available to a respectable woman – to enter the convent or a marriage. Arguably both pretty restrictive.

Self-portrait. 1554

In Self-portrait (1554) Anguissola paints herself holding a small book. On the open page is inscribed ‘Sophonisba Angusola virgo seipsam fecit 1554’ or translated reads ‘Sophonisba Angusola, a virgin, made this herself in 1554’. Now while it’s a fairly straight painting – she’s demure, appropriately dressed and positioned, following the requisite conventions for portraiture of the day, at first glance we don’t see the importance of this device or the disclosure within. But that clever little message is so significant – it ensures the viewer knows it’s a self-portrait, (not to be confused with a painting of her by someone else) quietly stating it in a way that would avoid her being seen as boastful yet provide good PR. And not only that, she’s declared to all the world that she’s a virgin! Unheard of today, but the strategic importance of it cannot be overstated; reassuring a prospective audience that she is a respectable, educated and above all, chaste woman.

But my favourite of her self-portraits is Bernardino Campi painting Sofonisba Anguissola (late 1550s). It’s a sensational piece because of its layered message. Anguissola paints Campi (one of her teachers and an important artist of the time) painting her. Probably designed as a tribute, a ‘thank-you’ to Campi, she paints him nicely and rather delicately – light falling on one side of his face, calmly glancing out to us. She shows him with the tools of trade, his hand poised to make a mark, balanced on the maulstick. But you don’t have to look very hard to find the other story in this painting, the one where Sofonisba is the main character.

Notice how the portrait of her is significantly larger than that of Campi and that she takes up most of the space on the canvas, her body towards the viewer with her face in full light. Our heroine is saying she’s important and worthy enough to be painted by a master, that she has social relevance. She’s claiming she’s a player! And perhaps Sofonisba is also saying that she is the the better painter. Way to go, girl!

I’m left moved and entertained by the piece, awed at the bravado of this gutsy woman who invented many of the conventions which have been used over and over to tell our stories as female artists.

 

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