SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA – Portraitist of the Renaissance at Rijksmuseum Twenthe

With half of the limited oeuvre of Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) on show makes the exhibition of this Renaissance painter one not to be missed. Beautifully presented against concrete walls all the attention goes out to the incredibly well painted portraits on this exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe.

After the very successful shows of Paula Modersohn-Bekcer and Artemisia Gentilleschi, Sofonisba Anguissola is the third female painter to premier with a solo exhibition in the Netherlands hosted by this museum.

For a noble woman like Sofonisba Anguissola it was extremely difficult to become a professional painter for a number of reasons. First of all, a lady of her standing was not allowed to sell her work. The portraits she made were paid for by returning favours to her family. Secondly, even though learning how to paint befitted a noble lady, there was no way she was allowed to study the human anatomy. She wasn’t even allowed to go out and study the nature around her home town Cremona.

Despite all this Sofonisba Anguissola became very successful and was hailed as ‘la più illustre pittrice d’Europa’ by an historian fifty years after her death in 1674. He was not the only one to speak favourably of Sofonisba. Giorgio Vasari visited her in Cremona and commented on the portrait of her three sisters playing chess that they were so live like that the only things that was missing was their breath. This was an incredible compliment coming from Vasari’s pen, one he had – until then – reserved in his ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’ only for great male painters as Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci.

Her fame even reached the Spanish king who asked the 27-year-old Sofonisba to come to court. Not as his court painter but as a lady in waiting to his 14-year-old wife, Elisabeth of Valois, who had a keen interest in the arts and was to be taught by the lady from Cremona.  A request like this of a monarch who practically ruled half the world, Sofonisba Anguissola could hardly refuse.  Besides that, she was used to teaching young girls, since she had been teaching her sisters Lucia and Europa too (both of whom are present with work at the exhibition). During her 14 year stay in Spain Sofonisba Anguissola painted many members of the court including Philip II, but unfortunately this is one of the masterpieces of the Prado.

In 1573 Sofonisba Anguissola was permitted to leave to marry a Sicilian nobleman, but that marriage only lasted five years before her husband died. After being given permission to leave Sicily and move back to Cremona, she set sail only to fall in love with the captain before reaching Genoa. Without asking permission of anyone, thereby ignoring all conventions, she married her sailor and settled with him, first in Pisa and then in Genoa. Here she copied a number of religious paintings by a famous local painter with her personal twist.

In 1615 the couple moved to Sicily where after a marriage of 45 years and at the age of 93 Sofonisba Anguissola died.   Wendy Fossen  12th February 2023