Sofonisba Anguissola was unusual in her day for being a trained female painter during the Renaissance who had court standing and was praised by and influenced her male peers. She painted primarily portraits of nobility, but what is mostly acknowledged to be some of her best work are her self-portraits and portraits of her family.
Anguissola was born in 1532 in Cremona, Italy to Amilcare and Bianca, who were minor nobility. Her father arranged for a well-rounded education for Sofonisba which included learning Classical languages, music, and, of course, painting. It wasn’t uncommon for even daughters to be taught these things at the time but few nobles, and especially few women, then began to work as an artist professionally. She studied under the young and upcoming artist Bernadino Campi for four years near her home and then traveled to Milan to continue her apprenticeship with Bernadino Gatti. Around this time, Aguissola also began to correspond with such well-known artists as Michelangelo and Carravaggio, receiving both guidance and praise from them.
Near the end of the 1550s, Anguissola had gained fame throughout Italy and beyond. In 1559, King Philip II of Spain invited Anguissola to his court in the position of a painting tutor for his wife, who had a great interest in the art. During her time tutoring Queen Elisabeth, the two women grew very close. Anguissola, in addition to her tutorly duties, painted many portraits of Spanish nobility, including one of Elisabeth. When Elisabeth sadly died after a miscarriage at the age of 23 in 1568, less than a decade after Aguissola came to court, Aguissola decided to remain in Spain rather than return to Italy.
Anguissola became tutor to King Philip’s children and, as a favor for her work, the King set her up with a noble marriage to Fabrizio de Moncada. She received numerous rich gifts for her wedding, partly as compensation for her artistic work in Philip’s court. The married couple then moved to de Moncada’s home in Cicily. de Moncada died in 1579. After his death, while traveling North to be with family, Aguissola fell in love with a poor nobleman whom her family didn’t approve of. She, however, contacted King Philip and he sent her more gifts and endorsed her marriage to her second husband, Orazio Lomellino. The couple settled in Genoa. It was here where she became known as a sort of cultural celebrity, hosting artistic and intellectual parties and still painting works which were widely-praised.
In Anguisolla’s later years, she was unable to paint due to failing eyesight. She then devoted more of her time to teaching young aspiring artists the principles of painting and becoming a patron of the arts. In 1625, Anguissola passed away at the age of 93 and was survived by her husband, who had adored her in life and remained loyal to her in death.
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