Children in Art by Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola has become one of the most celebrated and respected women artists of the Renaissance, credited with opening up painting as a socially acceptable profession for women[17]. Georgio Vasari wrote 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”[18].

As a child, she was sent to study at the workshop of the local master, Bernadino Campi[19].  Even with this training and the quality education provided to her by her father, Anguissola would not have been as likely as Agnolo Bronzino to secure a career as a portrait painter for a wealthy family of patrons.  As a woman, she would not have been allowed to study anatomy or work from live models as her male contemporaries could. For Anguissola, her sitters were people she had access to, mainly her younger siblings and other family members[20].  She frequently posed her sitters in informal and domestic settings, something her male contemporaries were not known for[21].  Anguissola used her unique insight as a woman artist to announce gender differences in her paintings of children.



This work is not only a self-portrait of Anguissola but also a portrait of the Virgin and Child.  Anguissola gives us a glimpse into her studio as she paints a devotional work.  Her choice to portray herself working on a religious painting reveals her strong faith.  Even the intersection of her paintbrush with the mahlstick creates a shape of a cross.  Her signature on many of her works refers to herself as “Virgo”, affirming her impeccable morals, virtue, and celibate status[22].  In this painting, she uses the innocence of Christ and the virginity of Mary to make a statement about herself.



Upon seeing her work, Georgio Vasari, the so-called “father of art history”, wrote,

"I must relate, that I saw this year in the house of Sofonisba’s father at Cremona, a picture executed by her hand with great diligence, portraits of her three sisters (The Chess Game) who appear truly alive, and are wanting in nothing save speech"[23].

Though Anguissola was not employed to advertise the wealth of patrons through portraiture, she did represent her own family.  Anguissola’s father raised her and her sisters just as he did his sons[24], providing them a first-rate humanist education and sending them to study with master painters. She uses her art to show that off.  The Chess Game is a great example.  Here we see Anguissola’s sisters, Lucia, Minerva, and Europa, engaged in a game of chess[25].  The fact that these girls are playing chess at all speaks to the type of family they come from.  Chess would have been an appropriate game for girls of their social and intellectual status[26].  



Here again is a portrait of Anguissola’s most frequent sitters, her siblings.  Anguissola has given the central position to her brother, Asdrubale.  His dark colored clothing contrasts his sister's matching striped dresses.  He cradles a small dog in his arms.  Anguissola has portrayed her family as wealthy and her sisters as modest and proper ladies.  Her brother, the focal point of the painting, would also be one of the most valued family members, second only to his father.  Anguissola had several sisters. but only one brother who was expected to carry on the family name and inherit the family’s wealth.



This portrait demonstrates society's preference of male children to female children.  Anguissola’s sister Minerva, though older than brother Asdrubale, is tucked behind her father and brother.  The Anguissola patriarch, Amilcare, has his back slightly turned to Minerva, offering his attention towards Asdrubale, the long-awaited male child.  The father’s hand rests on his son’s shoulder and Asdrubale returns the gesture by placing his hand upon his father’s other hand.   The young son is the preferred child in this composition and receives all of the father's attention and touch. 



This portrait of two children from an upper-class Florentine family [27], demonstrates the idea of the preference of male children to female children.  The young boy’s gaze looks out and slightly past the viewer, implying a distance and superiority.  The boy’s sister, who appears older, has her hand placed protectively on his shoulder.  She is situated behind the male child and directs her gaze on him.  Anguissola has portrayed her in a subordinate role to the boy, who appears to be the intellectual because he is reading a book.

[17] Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995) 10.

[18] Frederika H. Jacobs, "Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola,” Renaissance Quarterly 47:1 (1994): 77.

[19] Ferino-Pagden, Anguissola, 11.

[20] Ferino-Pagden, Anguissola, 11.

[21] Ann Sutherland Harris, “Sofonisba, Lavinia, Artemisia, and Elisabetta: Thirty Years after Women Artists, 1550-1950” in Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, 1. Claudio M. Strinati, Jordana Pomeroy, Vera Fortunati Pietrantonio. (New York: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2007), 52.

[22] Mary D. Gerrard. “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly, 47:3 (1994): 580.

[23] Jacobs, "Women's Capacity to Create", 77.

[24] Ferino-Pagden, Anguissola, 11.

[25]Ferino-Pagden, Anguissola, 31.

[26] Ferino-Pagden, Anguissola, 31.

[27] Christina Neilson, “Double Portrait of a Boy and Girl of the Attavanti Family, Early 1580's Sofonisba Anguissola (Italian 1528 - 1625),” unknown date, Allen Memorial Art Museum, podcast audio, 00:04:03, Accessed Dec 7, 2017.

Children in Art by Sofonisba Anguissola