Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana: Two Women of the Renaissance

If there was a new type of patron, there was also a new type of artist: more women were becoming artists during the Renaissance. In many cases, women who became artists during the Renaissance were able to do so because their family had a line of painters and a family workshop already existed.  In the case of Sofonisba Anguissola, there was no family workshop so her pathway was less traditional although certainly as accomplished.

Anguissola was one of six sisters, several of whom became artists although none of them achieved the success that she did.  She has been seen as a link between northern styles and Italian styles in terms of her style of painting and subject matter.  The union of these influences may have occurred in her work in part because she became the court painter to the King of Spain (Philip), where she was exposed to his extensive collection of European art.

Anguissola: Self-Portrait at the Spinet, 1561 Anguissola: Self-Portrait at an Easel, 1556

Showing herself at a musical instrument was a way for the female artist to show herself as having received a humanistic education. The education of the aristocratic woman involved poetry, philosophy, Latin, and music, along with some other intellectual skills, but not all women received this education.  Anguissola, who painted many self-portraits, often showed herself engaged in activities which demonstrated that she had been the recipient of an elite education.  By showing herself in front of an easel with a religious painting in progress, she demonstrated her range of artistic abilities.  Note that in both of these paintings, she also shows herself in a way which dominated many of her paintings: wearing an austere, black dress, reinforcing her image as a woman of virtue.  And recall the "double" meaning of the instrument she plays (which is also called a virginal) and how that further established her as a woman of virtue and self-sufficiency.

Anguissola: The Chess Game, 1555

The Chess Game is a family portrait of 1555, showing three of her sisters playing chess and the maid who appears in other paintings of hers looking on.  Anguissola's family portraits are notable for the way they inevitably show the family members expressing feelings and emotions, although rarely does she do this as effectively as in this painting.  In line with Anguissola's subtle use of the seemingly ordinary scenes to communicate a message about the "new" Renaissance woman, this painting makes reference to a game which had recently undergone changes in its rules, giving the pawn and the bishop greater latitude in movement, but making the queen the definitive piece of power.  It is telling, then, that she chose to show her sisters playing chess, as opposed to doing something else. In Mary Garrard's detailed analysis of this painting, she also notes that the directions of the girls' faces tell us a story about their familiar roles as mentors to one another and the "line of succession" in the family, from oldest daughter to youngest.  It is especially intriguing that Sofonisba, who clearly shows the influence of Leonardo's sfumato in her painting, does not use his approach to composition.  Rather than a pyramidal grouping of the figures, each girl has a rather distinct place and role in the family group.  Yet, at the same time, they are certainly connected to one another.  But again, unlike Leonardo, she does not connect them through hand gestures and touching; they are connected by the glances on their faces.

Lavinia Fontana's background parallels that of Anguissola in many ways, although in other ways, it is more exceptional. The daughter of a painter, she received a humanist education and training as an artist, eventually taking over his workshop after his death, since she was the only child.  As the head of the workshop, she taught some of her own children to paint and unlike Anguissola, she maintained her independence from the court for most of her career.  Some writers call her the first professional woman painter in western Europe–because her career, heading a workshop, receiving commissions, painting a wide range of subjects, is similar to the careers of male artists.

Portrait of a Noblewoman, 1580 Self-Portrait at the Clavichord, 1577

Although Fontana did paint religious paintings, her best known works are portraits.  One of her  self-portraits appears to be a response to Anguissola’s painting of herself at the clavichord.  But Fontana does something that Anguissola does not do: she includes a deep background space in her painting, showing a room behind her with a window in it, and more significant, an easel stands in the room.  Because the space is deep, rather than a shallow room with objects surrounding the subject of the painting, we focus less on the objects than we might in a painting with shallow space.  But the easel, directly in front of the window and behind Fontana’s head, is a focal point, and since the easel is empty and distant, we have to wonder why it is important.

Fontana’s self-portrait was probably intended as a visual letter to the family of her intended husband: it serves to establish her intention of supporting him through her art.  It demonstrates her breeding and accomplishments and appearance, but the key to this painting is the fact that rather than a dark undifferentiated background, we see her easel and a cassone–one associated with her work, the other associated with marriage.  She did not have a dowry, so she connects her easel to the chest which would have contained her dowry, saying, in essence, that one is worth even more than the other.

The portrait of the noblewoman might be described as an "occupational" portrait.  Marriage was the most important event in the woman’s life. Before marriage, her family would outfit the bride with a trousseau or corredo of expensive clothing, linens, and jewelry; these items were given her by her family and usually by the family of the future husband.  The female subject in this type of portrait usually wears some of the elements from the corredo (trousseau) and the painting therefore serves as a record of the upcoming marriage as well as a visual record of the wealth going into the marriage.  The dark backgrounds of such paintings serve to show off the finery possessed and worn by the woman.  Often she will be dressed in red, generally the color worn by a bride, and wearing jewelry and a gown with heavy gold embroidery, everything rendered in careful detail.  A lap dog was regarded as both a fashion accessory and a symbol of marital fidelity.