Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sophonisba Anguissola And The Tale Of The Old Masters

Self-Portrait, 1558, by Sofonisba Anguissola, Institut Neerlandais, Paris

Sofonisba Anguissola  (c. 1532-1625) was a Renaissance painter born in  the northern town of Cremona, Italy. She was the daughter of Amilcare and Bianca Anguissola.    Amilcare was a businessman who invested wisely in land and various businesses, so he was well off financially.  Amilcare and Bianca had 7 children, Sofonisba was the oldest.  Sofonisba, was named after a Queen who was an important political pawn in Carthaginian history who the Anguissola family believed they had a connection to.  According to the historical tales, Queen Sophonisba was beautiful and well educated in music and literature. Like the Queen,  Sofonisba Anguissola was educated in the arts from an early age.  Although women were not allowed to study in the art schools of the day, her father arranged for Sofonisba to study with Bernardino Campi, a prolific Cremonese painter.  He agreed to privately tutor Sofonisba and her sister Elena in art.  The two sisters stayed with Bernardino and his wife as "Paying guests".  They always were chaperoned by Bernardino's wife Anna. Sofonisba learned about how to prepare canvas (which had only been in use at that point for 35 years) and make oil paints.  She learned to draw by sketching and making copies of Campi's work and other masters of the time.  This taught her the principles of shading, proportions and spatial relationships

She painted Bernardino Campi in a very original and innovative way.  Rather than the typical portrait, she chose to do a portrait of her mentor painting a portrait of herself.  She elected to depict him in action.  It also depicted a teacher-student theme which was rare for the time period.

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1550,
 collection of the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy

Michelangelo  and Caravaggio

By 1550 Sofonisba wanted expand her artistic training and knowledge beyond Cremona, so she left for Rome.   Rome was the center of  Renaissance creativity, innovation and Michelangelo Buonarotti(Italian 1475-1564) was living there at the time.  

While Sofonisba Anguissola stayed in Rome, it is known that she crossed paths with Michelangelo.
Here is a excerpt of a wonderful letter that Sofonisba's father, Amilcare, wrote to Michelangelo:

"My Most Honorable Sir,
Your most excellent, virtuous and good natured soul (all that is given by God) made me keep the memory of you which duly has to given to such an important and extraordinary gentleman.  And what makes me and my whole family obliged to you is having understood the honorable and thoughtful affection you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter, to whom you introduced the practice of the  most honorable art of painting.....
Your most obedient servant,
Amilcare Anguissola"

The drawing shown below was done as an assignment requested by Michelangelo of Sofonisba.  She initially had done a drawing of a smiling girl, when Michelangelo saw the drawing, he said he wanted her to do a drawing of a weeping boy, a subject he said would be much more difficult to draw.    Sofonisba was inventive and imaginative, she created this lifelike drawing showing her brother being bitten by a crab.  She used her young brother Asdrubale as the model.  Judging from Asdrubale's age, this sketch is dated to have been drawn around 1554 by Sofonisba.

Asdrubale Being Bitten By A Crab, by Sofonisba Anguissola,
collection of Gabinetto dei Disegni, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

It is very interesting to compare this drawing to Caravaggio's "Boy Bitten by Lizard" which is dated around 1597,more than 40 years later than Anguissola's drawing.  Caravaggio scholar, Roberto Longhi (1890-1970)suggested that the artist borrowed the motif from Sofonisba.

Boy Being Bitten By A  Lizard by Caravaggio, 1597
 Collection of Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence
By 1555 Sofonisba left Rome and returned to her hometown Cremona, forever changed by her interaction with Michelangelo Buonarotti.  During this time she did many self-portraits and painted her family.  Here are some examples.

Self-Portrait By Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556
Collection of the Lancet Museum, Poland

The Chess Game by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555
Collection of National Museum Poznan, Poland

In 1558 Anguissola went to Milan and while she was there she was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Duke of Alba, who was there visiting from Spain.  He was so impressed with Sofonisba that he recommended her to King Philip II of Spain as a court portraitist and lady in waiting for his new young bride and Queen, Elisabeth of Valois.  This resulted in King Philip II summoning Sofonisba to his court.  Sofonisba wound up staying in the Spanish court for 14 years.  She had much in common with Queen Elisabeth, they both loved music and art.  She painted many court portraits  including those of Elisabeth.  It is now recognized that she also painted King Philip II, which is historically outstanding, since it was very uncommon for a King to be painted by a woman.

Queen Elisabeth of Valois, 1561,by Sofonisba Anguissola,
Collection of the Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

King Philip II, 1565, by Sofonisba Anguissola, Collection of the Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

King Philip II took a special interest in Sofonisba's personal life.  In 1571 (Sofonisba was almost 40 years old), the king arranged for her to marry a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli.  She moved with Don Fabrizio to Paterno (near Catania, Italy) with permission from king Philip II.  Here she lived from 1573-1579, on a pension from the king, which enabled her to keep painting and tutor artists.  In 1579 the plague claimed Don Fabrizio's life.  She decided that she wanted to return home to Cremona to her family and two years later on a sea voyage, she fell in love with a dashing sea captain,  Orazio Lomellino. Romance blossomed at sea.  I love this story :) Sofonisba and Orazio lived the rest of their years in prosperity and harmony.  Her artistic career flourished with her adoring husband, who called Sofonisba "great among mortals".   

Peter Paul Rubens

Sofonisba's work influenced many painters of the day and was widely copied, including  Peter Paul Rubens.  He made a copy of Sofonisba's painting "Portrait of Queen Isabella with Zibellino".

Portrait of Queen Isabel De Valois by Sofonisba Anguissola,
Collection of the Prado Museum Madrid

Portrait of Queen Isabel de Valois by Peter Paul Rubens
(after Sofonisba Anguissola)

Anthony Van Dyke

A twenty five year old Anthony Van Dyke met a ninety two year old Sofonisba Anguissola around 1624.  She had been the leading portraitist in Genoa, prior to her move to Palermo, which was her last residence.  Here Anthony Van Dyke sketched Sofonisba in his sketchbook.  It is said she captured Anthony Van Dyke's  undivided attention with all her stories about Philip II and his court.  

Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola at age  92, 1624 by Anthony Van Dyke

**A great resource and monograph :  Sofonisba Angiussola: The First Great Woman Artist Of The Renaissance by Ilya Sandra Perlingieri. Published by Rizzoli International Publications 1992

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Burning of Adelaide Labille-Guiard's Masterpiece

"The Burning of Adelaide Labille-Guiard's Masterpiece" 2015, Oil on Linen, 70x105 in, by Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso


by Donald Miller

From the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, the highest form of art was history painting, capturing in paint and canvas events from the historic past. It is particularly appropriate that Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso, a fine artist with many successful one-woman exhibitions, should be a teacher of painting at New York City’s historic National Academy of Design, founded by famous American artists in 1825.
     Dellosso’s search for accomplished women artists led her some years ago to the self-portraits of brilliant and largely self-supporting French artist Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803). Her paintings are exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Louvre and other cultural sites.   
     Deepening her appreciation of Labille-Guiard, her favorite historic painter, Dellosso first depicted herself in an oil painting as a student of Labille-Guiard.
     In that work Dellosso’s pose differs from Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait at the Metropolitan Museum. In that group portrait, Labille-Guiard, dressed in her fine clothes, instructs two women students. Yet Dellosso, in her own painting instantly recalling Labille-Guiard’s work, stands in homage beside the French artist as though she is instructing Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso at the easel.
    But there is more to consider than such juxtaposing, as Dellosso would continue to do in her self-portrait at the easel with Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842). Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter, Vigée-Le Brun would escape the Terror by painting nobles in Italy and Russia.
     Dellosso’s body of work includes other self-portraits in widely differing works where she is not only the creator of paintings but is also their subject in various dress forms suitable to different time periods. She calls them her homages.
    In Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso’s The Burning of Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Masterpiece, 2015 (oil on linen canvas, seventy inches tall by one hundred and fifteen inches wide), she brilliantly depicts herself as Labille-Guiard herself, swooning in a female student’s arms in 1793. The Parisian artist is overcome by horror. She stares as two uniformed soldiers and their followers smash and burn her large unfinished group portrait of a royal prince, the Comte de Provence, on which Labille-Guiard had labored two and a half years.
  Entitled Receiving a Knight of St. Lazare by Monsieur, Grand Master of the Order, the work refers to the Comte de Provence, who as next oldest brother of King Louis XVI, was traditionally called Monsieur at court.
    The original painting was destroyed and Labille-Guiard was falsely suspected of being a royalist because of several portraits of royals, including the daughters of Louis XV, she had done. But ironically, Labille-Guiard was politically a republican and even painted a portrait of rebel leader Maximilien Robespierre. Labille-Guiard would never attempt as large or complex a painting again. The Comte de Provence would return to France some sixteen years later after the fall of Napoleon I.
   In exile the Comte de Provence gathered a large court of outlawed French nobles and assumed the title Louis XVIII, eventually succeeding Louis XVI’s uncrowned son who had died in prison.
   Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso’s painting eloquently depicts Labille-Guiard’s anguish. It is meant to be seen as though you are there. Her broken and burning painting is contrasted vividly with the soldiers’ indifference as they destroy the art she labored on for so long. The gray smoke that swirls and rises from the flames is almost palpable.


 Donald Miller has been a writer and journalist for more than sixty years. With degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, Donald Miller was employed for forty-three years by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In semi-retirement, he was an art critic at the Naples, Florida, Daily News and continues to write for magazines.  
Mr. Miller is the author of seven books, mostly on artists and architects, including Louis Comfort Tiffany and egg tempera master Robert Vickrey. He has interviewed many interesting people. They include Andy Warhol, Paul Mellon, Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Victor Vasarely, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Michael Graves, Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, Gloria Swanson and Gloria Vanderbilt.
     Mr. Miller's latest book, Lafayette: His Extraordinary Life and Legacy, offers more information than any other book in English about the champion of freedom. Lafayette knew the Comte de Provence as a youth at Versailles and became the autocratic future Louis XVIII’s sworn enemy.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


This is a very interesting topic.  It is a subject that has always been defined by the great male painters that have ruled the art scene throughout the ages: Rubens, Michelangelo, Raphael, David, Goya, etc ...are the names you hear, time and time again.   Let us define "History Painting", it is the genre of painting that is defined by the subject rather than the style, and it usually is in a very large format. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject, as in a portrait. History painting's subjects most commonly are: religious, allegorical, mythological and of course, scenes from history itself. The term is derived from the wider senses of the word "historia" in Latin and Italian, meaning "story" or "narrative" and essentially means "story painting".  Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century Italian humanist, argued that "multi figure history painting was the noblest form of art, the most difficult, which required mastery of all skills".  Specific subjects include religious scenes from the Life of Christ, as well as narrative scenes from mythology and allegorical scenes.  History painting should not be confused with genre painting which depicts ordinary people engaged in everyday activities,  examples are, domestic scenes, market and street scenes.

To understand why there are so few women who practiced history painting the reader must know that females were not allowed to study academic art or the male nude until the 20th century.  

Traditionally, art academies throughout Europe barred women from study and exhibiting their work.  Very few women achieved membership in the art academies of Europe. Typically women who triumphed in achieving artistic training were related to a male artist, like a father/daughter relationship.

The question we can now ask, who were the daring women, that not only managed to achieve artistic training and success in the field, but ventured into the GRAND terrain of history painting between the time period of the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and the 19th century.

A remarkable discovery is a 21 foot long Last Supper painting by an artist-nun, from Florence, Italy by the name of Suor Plautilla-Nelli (1524-1588).  Plautilla Nelli joined the convent--Santa Catarina of Siena, at the age of 14.  It was run by Dominican Friars, who promoted devotional painting by religious women to avoid sloth.  Nelli's Last Supper painting is the only known Last Supper  painted by a female.
The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, from Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy (currently under restoration)

Detail of The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli (currently under restoration)

Here is a  10 foot magnificent version of The Lamentation with Saints by Nelli:

Lamentation with Saints in The San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy
by Suor Plautilla Nelli

Caterina Van Hemessen (1527-1581) was a Flemish painter known for her small scale portraits and religious compositions. Giorgio Vasari named her as an important Flemish painter in his "Vite" ("Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects"). Here is an impressive religious composition by Hemessen.

"Ascent to Calvary and Encounter with Veronica" by Caterina Van Hemessen"

Lavinia Fontana (Italian 1552-1614) was a very successful artist in her day, being the breadwinner of the family at age 13. Here is an impressive composition by Lavinia:

Assumption Of The Virgin With Saints Peter Chrysologus And Casein,1584,
by Lavinia  Fontana

Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an Italian Baroque painter, of the generation following Caravaggio. She was the first woman to achieve membership in the Accademia de Belle Arti di Firenze in Italy.  She was the daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.  She painted scenes of strong and suffering women.  Her best known example is Judith Slaying Holofernes. She painted two versions of this scene.  It captures the brutality of the scene with dynamic strength.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620, Oil on canvas, 70 x 47 in,
Schloss Weibenstein, Bavaria, Germany
Judith Slaying Holofernes second version by Artemisia Gentileschi,1620-21, oil on canvas, 78.3 x64 in, Uffizi Gallery,
Florence, Italy
Angelica Kauffman (1751-1807) was a Swiss Neoclassical painter, remembered primarily as a history painter.  She was a founding member of the Royal Academy in London in 1768.

Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, by Angelica Kauffman, pre-1782, Oil on Canvas 34 1/2 x28 in,
collection of Germaldegalerie, Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

Bacchus and Ariadne by Angelica Kauffman, pre-1782, Private collection

The Legend of Cupid and Pysche by Angelica Kauffman, Private collection

Constance Mayer (1775-1821) was a French painter, who painted portraits, as well as allegorical works.  Here are a couple of her lovely allegorical paintings
The Dream of Happiness by Constance Mayer, 1819, Oil on canvas, Louvre museum, Paris, France

Venus and Sleeping Cupid  by Constance Mayer, 1806, Oil on Canvas, 38 x 57 in, 
Wallace Collection, London
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was a French painter, known for her expertise and realism in painting animals.  She was decorated with the French Legion of Honor by the Empress Eugenie and was promoted to officer of the order in 1894.  One of her most impressive paintings is the complex "Horse Fair".  I personally think this animal/genre scene, has so many elements of a history painting, if Rosa would have entitled it something like King George's Favorite Horse perhaps it could cross into the genre. One of my favorite paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, ~1854, Oil on canvas, 96 x 199 in, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth Thompson or known as "Lady Butler" 1846-1933, a British painter, who like Angelica Kauffman achieved fame for History Paintings.

Scotland Forever by Lady Butler , 1881, Oil on Canvas, Leeds Art Gallery, Yorkshire, England

"The Return From Inkerman" by Lady Butler, 1877, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, England
The Roll Call By Lady Butler, 36 x72 in, Oil on canvas, Royal collection
(Private Collection of the British Royal Family)

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe 1850-1936, was an American Painter and founding member and teacher of the historic Art Student's League of New York City.  She painted works about revolutionary and colonial American history.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownstone, 1914, Oil on canvas, Pilgrim Hall Museum Collection, Massachusetts

The Peace Ball at Fredericksburg, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1897, oil on canvas, 31x50 in , Collection of the Newark Museum, NJ, (Book reference source for painting photo "Women Artists" by Margaret Barlow, 1999, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, pg 124-125)

These History Painters achieved something special and noble, against all odds..... an inspirational story.