Female Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola

Although Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was one of the best known female painters of the Italian Renaissance, she is relatively obscure in today’s art history.  Here’s a small start to changing the legacy of this pioneer among female painters, and recognizing her famous Renaissance paintings as the ground-breaking works they were.

Her name comes from a Carthaginian princess deemed “exceedingly beautiful and notable, both in music and in writing”, which were aspirations held by her father Amilcare.

Three Sisters Playing Chess.  Oil on canvas, 1555.  Approximately 28″ by 38″. National Museum in Poznan.

He subscribed to the education philosophy of Baldassare de Castiglione, who professed in The Courtesan (1528) that females should receive the education typically reserved for males; as such, Anguissola and her five younger sisters were taught music, painting, Latin and the humanities.

That’s over four centuries ago.

Anguissola, excelling at a young age, studied with the painters, Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti. Forbidden from seeing nude men in anatomy or life drawing classes, Anguissola focused on portraiture.  By the age of 15, she was renowned for their expressiveness.  At 20, Anguissola created one of her most famous paintings, Three Sisters Playing Chess (above), a revolutionary painting of Renaissance art.

Her sister, Lucia, gazes confidently at the viewer after capturing the queen of Minerva, who raises her right hand in surprise. The youngest sister, Europa, is captured in a flash of spontaneous laughter while a servant looks on; the match unfolds before the hazy background painted in the Renaissance art technique of sfumato.

Three Sisters Playing Chess demonstrates how Anguissola had a dash of the revolutionary about her — this portrayal of an everyday, informal domestic scene, or genre painting, was the first in Italian painting.  Additionally, chess was typically played only by upper class men or nobility, not by women; they were painted performing domestic pursuits (and not often by female painters, either).

As her reputation spread beyond Italy, Phillip II of Spain asked Anguissola to become lady-in-waiting and art teacher to Queen Isabella of Valois.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Phillip II of Spain.  Oil on board, circa 1564.  Prado, Madrid.

Anguissola left her native Cremona in 1559, and spent the next decade painting all members of the royal family, including a portrait of the Queen commissioned by the Pope.

Instead of being compensated with monetary payments as male court painters were, female artists like Sofonisba Anguissola often received luxurious gifts for which no records were kept. As such, there are fewer historical clues – and much controversy – in attributing paintings to Sofonisba Anguissola.

One such painting is Phillip II of Spain, originally attributed to Alonso Sanchez Coelloa fellow court painter, but ultimately attributed to Anguissola in 1996. She portrays a somber Phillip II fingering his Order of the Golden Fleece and dressed in the high hat and black clothing that typified his midlife.

Perhaps after more Anguissola paintings are identified, she’ll regain the stature she had with the Florentine biographer, Filippo Baldinucci: in his book Lives (1681), he lavishly praised Sofonisba Anguissola and compared her to one of the most famous painters of all, Titian.


Check out this survey of female artists, which spans the careers of Anguissola to Frida Kahlo, and the female painters between them.

Explore more famous Renaissance paintings in this overview of 20 key works.

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By |2018-03-23T23:30:21+00:00May 8th, 2011|Renaissance paintings|14 Comments

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  1. Frances Johnson May 8, 2011 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the posts. I do have a degree in Art History, but your posts fill in the blanks, since it is impossible to cover all of it in school.

  2. Susan Benford May 9, 2011 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your feedback — I’m thrilled to know that the posts are helpful!


  3. Alberti's Window May 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Great post! I’ve never read Baldinucci’s biography on Anguissola. I’ll have to look into it. Does Baldinucci discuss her in much depth? I remember that Anguissola only got a little attention from Vasari.

  4. Val S. May 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    I’d heard her name before but never knew much about Sofonisba Anguissola. This makes me want to find out more.

    Another blog I follow, Old Paint (http://oldpainting.tumblr.com/)has an Anguissola painting posted today, of Sofonisba’s sister Minerva. It’s a beautiful picture, and a funny coincidence since you had just posted this recently!

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Val S. May 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    I tried to leave a message before, but it didn’t work. I’ll try again, but it’s not easy typing Sofonisba Anguissola!

    I really enjoyed this post – it makes me want to learn more about S.A. In an odd coincidence, another blog mentioned her today, with a portrait of her sister, Minerva. Maybe Sofonisba is in the zeitgeist at the moment.

  6. Susan Benford May 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    I’ve had to add “comments moderation” due to spam comments, so it seemed your comment didn’t publish.

    I’m quite fascinated by Anguissola, too — so phenomenally accomplished at such a young age, in an era so unsupportive of female painters!

    I don’t find many books about her, but this one appears to have the best reviews: Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman.



  7. Val S. May 16, 2011 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the reply, Susan. Sorry I was so impatient!

  8. Kelly Knox June 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    I think there has been some renewed interest in Sofonisba–lately. (In response to a previous post.) This has always been a favorite of mine, but it hardly ever makes it into College textbooks; when it does, the author seems to give us very little information about her. My favorite I think has to be little Europa in this painting, though–she reminds me of my youngest daughter Amber–and when we look at the painting we know everything about the politics of the rivalry among the sisters! Thank you for the article…. Seeing the picture again made a very bad week, a bit better….

  9. Susan Benford June 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm - Reply


    I agree — the girls’ rivalry is nearly palpable! One of my readers suggested a new book about Sofonisba — it’s called The Creation of Eve and is by Lynn Cullen. Looks like it’s gotten solid reviews so far — if you read it before I do, please share your feedback!


  10. Anonymous December 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Are there any books about her?

  11. Susan Benford December 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    I’ve been digging around for some books on Anguissola and find that there are few. A reader suggested one I’ve yet to read, The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen.

    Susan Benford

  12. Madeline February 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I read the book mentioned above by Susan. It’s historical fiction. The author writes a fictional account about the time when Sofonisba came to the Spanish court to tutor the new queen of Spain in drawing. It’s a pretty good read. One can imagine the role of women at that time, especially an artist, and the author creates a pretty good story. It made me curious about this artist, that Ihad to find out more about her.

  13. Beatrice Portinari August 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I love Sofonisba! I recently did some research on her and was able to see her gorgeous self portrait in Naples. I find there are a lot of attributions to Sofonisba Anguissola. She must have made a profound contribution, especially in the world of female artists of the time.

  14. Susan Benford August 24, 2012 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    It IS thrilling that she is winning the respect she deserves. Thanks for the link to many paintings and attributed paintings by her, too.

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