The exquisite work of Sofonisba Anguissola has often been misattributed to male painters of the period. Artist like Titian, Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco de Zurbarán have been credited with Sofonisba's work. One of the most exciting painters of the Italian Rennaissance, Sofonisba was an original talent in a male-dominated world.
Sofonisba Auguissola was born in 1532 in Cremona, Lombardy to a noble family. Sofonisba’s father, Amilcare Anguissola was a member of the Genoese nobility. Despite being relatively poor, Amilcare made sure his children received a comprehensive education. Sofonisba was the oldest of seven Anguissola children and the first of six girls. The Anguissola sisters all received art tuition and five of them (Elena, Lucia, Europa, Anna Maria, and Sofonisba) went on to become painters. Yet none but Sofonisba developed a career. Elena gave up painting to enter a convent. Anna Maria and Europa married and gave up painting and Lucia died tragically young.
In 1546, when Sofonisba was around fourteen years old, she was sent to live with Bernardino Campi, a respected local painter. It was common for young apprentices to board with artists at the time to study their craft full time. Campi painted religious scenes and portraiture and was a prominent figure in what became known as the Lombard School. Sofonisba remained with Campi for three years until he moved to Milan and Sofonisba moved on to study under Bernardino Gatti. Gatti taught Sofonisba to appreciate the work of Correggio and other Rennaissance painters.
After studying under Gatti for a period of around three years, Sofonisba began to earn her own living as a painter. At this time in Europe, it was unheard of for a young woman to apprentice as a painter, nevermind earn her own living from painting. Sofonisba broke down social and cultural barriers and set a precedent for other women to pursue their careers in art. Before Sofonisba’s sisters gave up painting, she spent long hours with them, teaching them what she had learned about her craft.
Sofonisba painted many family portraits as a young woman. Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess or The Chess Game (1955) survive today at the Museum Navrodwe, Poznan. In this painting, Sofonisba subverts the formality of a noble family setting with playful facial expressions. Sofonisba’s tendency towards portraiture was evidence of the constraints of her sex that even her status could not overcome. Sofonisba’s education was broad but gendered. The preferred outcome of the majority of her studies was to make her a better wife and companion to a man. Even in Sofonisba’s art training, her sex defined the curriculum. Forbidden from studying nudes, Sofonisba could not develop the skills needed to paint large-scale religious or historical scenes.
Sofonisba developed a reputation in Italy as one of the leading artists of her day. That reputation spread to Madrid and King Philip II invited Sofonisba to join his court in 1559. Sofonisba’s role within the court was multi-faceted. Painting portraits of prominent figures, Sofonisba also acted as a lady in waiting and art tutor to Elizabeth of Valois. Elizabeth was Philip II’s third wife and at fourteen-years-old had recently given birth.
Sofonisba stayed at Philip II’s court for around fourteen years during which time she painted many portraits of the royal family. Elizabeth of Valois died in 1568. Sofonisba and Elizabeth had grown incredibly close and she mourned the young queen’s loss as though she had been a sister. The court suffered another tragedy in the 17th century when a fire destroyed much of the court including all Sofonisab's paintings.
Sofonisba’s time at the court of Philip II earned her a substantial dowry. Philip II arranged for Sofonisaba to marry Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, a Sicilian nobleman in 1571. With the king’s permission, the newly married couple left Spain and built a life in Paterno where they remained for around six years. In 1579, after only eight years of marriage, Fabrizio died, leaving Sofonisba a widow. But Sofonisba still had financial independence and continued her work as a painter.
In 1579, Sofonisba met her second husband, Orazio Lomellino. Orazio was a Genoese nobleman and the captain of a ship on which Sofonisba was traveling from Paterno to Genoa. Against her family’s wishes, Sofonisba and Orazio were married in 1584 and they lived happily together in Genoa until 1620.
During the latter half of her life, Sofonisba maintained her reputation as the preeminent portrait painter in Genoa. With more financial freedom and no royal patron directing her work, Sofonisba experimented with religious themes. Sofonisba also became a patron of the arts herself when her failing sight prevented her from painting.
In 1624, when she was 92 years old, Sofonisba received a visit from Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. It was not unusual for Sofonisba to receive visits from young male artists eager for her advice on their work. Van Dyck later said that his meeting with Sofonisba taught him more about the true principles of painting than anything else in his life. Van Dyck also sketched Sofonisba in his notebook.
In 1635, Sofonisba died aged 93 in Palermo. Orazio buried Sofonisba with honor at the Church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi.