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.

Join this art history blog for more posts like these.  [Button “Join Blog”]