Women artists: Sonfonisba Anguissola

Women were stuck in the chores of domesticity until comparatively recent times.  Becoming anything other than a mother and domestic was nearly unheard of for almost all women.  Therefore I decided to find out more about the ones that overcame this rigid social system and give them a bit of their due.

Sonfonisb Anguissola (1532, Cremona, Italy), was an Italian portrait painter working in Genoa, Palermo and Madrid in the 16th century.  She was of noble birth, as one might expect, as was almost always the case with female artists at least until the 19th c.  She apprenticed when quite young, as was common at the time for males, but in her case it was precedent setting.

As a young woman she went to Rome, spending her time sketching.  There she met Michelangelo, who recognized her skills.  In Milan she was commissioned to paint the Duke of Alba.  He introduced her to the Spanish queen, Elizabeth of Valois and wife of Phillip II, an amateur painter in her own right.  In 1559 she moved to Madrid as Elizabeth’s tutor and lady in waiting, becoming an official court painter.  Upon the queen’s death, Philip arranged an aristocratic marriage for her. She moved first to Palermo, then Pisa and finally Genoa, where she remained an admired portrait painter, seemingly with the backing of both of her husbands.  She died at ninety-three, having been a wealthy patron of the arts after her eyesight failed.


Sonfonisb Anguissola Self Portrait
Sonfonisba Anguissola Self Portrait

Her best portraits are of her family:

Portrait of Minerva Anguissola
Portrait of Minerva Anguissola

At age 20 she painted this, her most famous painting:

Three Sisters Playing Chess
Three Sisters Playing Chess

But she made her money doing portraits of nobility:

Sofonisba Anguissola – Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Spain, 1599
Sofonisba Anguissola – Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Spain, 1599

Most of her religious paintings are lost.  Here most important early painting is Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1550). It’s a double portrait showing her art teacher in the act of painting a portrait of her.

She was not allowed to study the nude, as women weren’t permitted to do so.

You may expect future entries on the following artists:  Gontcharova, Gwen John, Hepworth, Kahlo





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