Sofonisba Anguissola, painter of Philip II of Spain
Italy, 16th century, who didn’t wish to be an artist?
Sofonisba was born in a noble family from Cremona. His father was fond of Cartago history and all of his children had historical names (Sofonisba is an old African heroine).
As so many rich families of this time, Sofonisba Anguissola’s family studied and supported artists as a way of getting importance in society.
Then, Sofonisba and his brother and daughters had a complete education (Humanism times). She and Lucia loved painting and they followed a career in Arts (both daughters are current exhibited in different museums around the world). But Lucia, shier than Sofonisba, didn’t have the necessary strength to become an international figure and she entered in a convent. However, Sofonisba moved to Florence to study with Michelangelo Buonarroti and she became member of the Accademy of Lucca.
In the meantime, in Spain, Philip II was building a giant palace in El Escorial and asking for Italian artists to decorate it.
Sofonisba Anguissola arrived at Madrid in 1559 as a court painter. Here, she painted all of the royal members with a smart intention and innovative lights.
One of the portraits se made of Philip II (1565) has been the official image of that powerful king for centuries, overcoming in fame those made by Tiziano, Moro or Coello.
Dark background and dark dresses to contrast with the black face and hands of the Catholic king, eternally praying the rosary. The king is sitting in an armchair and Sofonisba only portrayed the half of his body (from the waist up). Then, the spectator’s point of view approaches to his blue eyes, which are two sources of light, illuminating the dark painting and honoring his royal person.
No jewels (except for the golden fleece: his symbol), no rich dresses or pieces of furniture but we know he is the king by his attitude. An attitude admired and imitated by other current painters (specially Van Dyck who visited Sofonisba to learn more and more of her).
Sofonisba Anguissola remains in Madrid nine years and returned to Italy married with the son of the Viceroy of Sicilia, an important marriage arranged by the own king.
Really admired in her time, she constantly showed her strong personality. Widower, she remarried by love with a sailor eleven years younger than her: Orazio Lomellino.
Afterwards and in spite of all of these merits, Sofonisba’s signature on Philip II portrait was cover by an oleo stain. When did that happen? I suppose after the confusion which followed the burning of the old royal palace in Madrid in 1734, where this portrait was garded (in this fire even some Velazquez’ paintings suffered damages: “Spinners”) and the construction of the current Prado Museum in 1819, were the royal paintings were moved.
Then, during the “male chauvinist” 19th century (in my opinion, much more “macho” than the 16th century, when not only was Sofonisba painting with success but Marietta Robusti, Catherina Van Hemessen, Lavinia Fontana…) the name of Sofonisba was forgotten and her portrait attributed to Sánchez Coello school.
Fortunately, in 1996, a restorer of the Prado Museum discovered her signature (hidden beneath that oleo stain) and today the portrait is exhibited with the name of the correct artist: the Great Woman Sofonisba Anguissola.
Vasari said about her:
“Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavors at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings”.
See more ancient women artists: