Sofonisba Anguissola: the first woman to infiltrate the boys club art world

The Italian painter was one of the first artists to be recognised among the male-dominated art world of the 16th century


By Shani Haquin


When the Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola was 22, she sent a painting of a young boy crying to the famous artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. The year was 1554 and she had only moved to Rome a few months before. Michelangelo responded, genuinely impressed: “One can only prove her skill after drawing crying children, as it is the difficult emotional expression to draw.”


This painting that Anguissola created for Buonarroti is called Asdrubale Bitten by a Crawfish and has inspired many artists, including the likes of Caravaggio and Peter Van Rubens. It was Anguissola’s first painting that was recognised by the (male-dominated) art world and encouraged her to keep creating work.


Back then, the golden and ancient streets of Rome were full of ambitious male painters, educated under the guidance of the notable masters. These painters’ career paths were significantly easier and more ‘successful’ compared to women artists at the time. They were privileged with anatomy class and life drawings, while women were prevented from participation in them, including Anguissola.


Then, women painters suffered from negative stigmas on how ‘unnatural’ or ‘talentless’ they are. It was often only women from wealthy families who were educated with the intent on becoming good house wives. However, this didn’t hold Anguissola back, as she started to sketch from memory, dreams, and her surroundings on the streets of Rome, which despite being deprived from arts education, gave her paintings a different quality of liveliness.


Anguissola’s technical requirement and practice did work well for her later, and at 26, she was invited by King Philip II to the Spanish court to become a lady-in-waiting (basically a personal assistant) to Elisabeth de Valois, the Queen at the time. This was considered a productive period in Anguissola’s career; not only tutoring the young queen, but also painting many portraits of the Royal family.


During this time, Anguissola evolved her practice and ability to paint portraits which represented the nature of her figures, which distinguished her from her male peers. Her greatness, I believe, came from this ability to represent not only the visual appearance of someone, but adding other psychological layers too.


One of my favourite portraits she painted is a self portrait from 1610. She painted herself at 78 years of age, sitting on a chair, holding a letter and a book. Her eyes still haunt me and I feel empathy and compassion every time I stare into the portrait.


It is like every brushstroke tells a story; on the first gaze I see the artist’s loneliness, while another gaze gives me a deeper feeling of a remarkable sensitivity. This work plays carefully and intelligently with a net of emotions that will stay preserved within the painting.


I read this portrait as a goodbye letter to her life-long love of painting, and she continued to live for 15 more years after she created this portrait. Anguissola later died in Palermo, Sicily in 1625, leaving her emotions and ambitions to live on through her magnificent paintings.