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

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