In one of Sofonisba Anguissola’s multiple self-portraits, the Renaissance painter stands against a striking green background, meeting the viewer’s gaze with wide, clear eyes and an upturned mouth that seems both pensive and amused. As if to prove her bona fides, she brandishes a small book that reads Sophonisba Angusola virgo seipsam fecit 1554 (“The virgin Sofonisba Anguissola made this herself in 1554”). The artist has written her own art history. If the inscription had been longer, it might have continued, “And Michelangelo approved.”
Anguissola (circa 1535–1625) and Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) share the candlelight in a Prado exhibition that rightfully puts the two artists front and center, with 60 remarkable works in all. Like Anguissola, Fontana was celebrated internationally in her lifetime. She painted numerous resplendently textured portraits of noblewomen, and was invited to Madrid by Philip II and to Rome by Pope Clement VIII. Indeed, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Fontana is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent.” One of her paintings, Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli, Half Length, in an Interior, Holding a Dog and Surrounded by Six of Her Children, celebrates both the beruffled group of seven and the riotous patterns of their textiles (not to mention the subtle individuality of each child). Amid all this acclaim, Fontana also managed to give birth to 11 children, who were tended by her husband.
If the inscription had been longer, it might have continued, “And Michelangelo approved.”
Of Anguissola, Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century Italian painter and author of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, wrote that she “has labored at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time.” He also praised her “drawing, coloring, and copying from nature,” despite the fact that, being female, Anguissola was excluded from the formal study of human anatomy and life drawing. After her death, in her 90s, her husband had her tomb engraved with the words “To Sofonisba, my wife … who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man.” More than just man. Both women mastered as much of the world as was permitted for them to access, but, as Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen, “Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe.” —Emily Gordon