Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait of the Artist
with Sisters and Governess. 1555
(The Chess Game)
oil on canvas, 27"x37"
Nardowe Museum, Poznan, Poland
In many of her self portraits Sofinisba is not depicted
Images like this tend to lend authority to Annie's
Art History-Term Paper
July 17, 2001
The First Celebrated Woman Artist of the Renaissance:
The Renaissance is a period known as the "rebirth of the classics". Indeed this age, about 1300 CE to 1600 CE, went back to the ideals that Greeks and Romans valued. One social norm that was still present in the 1500s was that of gender roles. Viewed under the male gaze, women were still obligated to be proper housewives. Because the male gaze, which was art made in terms of the male view, was so dominant during that time, women didnít do much than give birth. However, Sofonisba Anguissola was fortunate enough to be born the eldest of a Cremona nobleman who "was fully committed to the education of his daughters, and obtained for them the best teachers available," (Recognition pg. 25). Sofonisba was so talented in painting that she later studied with Bernardino Campi and was even praised by Michelangelo. After her father died, she was the sole guardian and benefactor to her six siblings. "The Chess Game" (1555) is one painting that shows how she got her "claim to fame". First of all, "The Chess Game" seems to exhibit some form of Renaissance art, which might have made it accepted. Her style of painting, by iconographic analysis, is well within the boundaries of the male gaze, which was similar to the writings of Christine de Pizan (radical, yet still within the status quo). Also, the historical background from which she was from and her soap opera-like life added to her increased popularity. In order for Sofonisba Anguissola to be acknowledged as a Renaissance female artist, she needed to be accepted as an artist with knowledge of basic art skills, considered a traditional female as viewed by the male gaze, but also loved by all.
"The Chess Game" is an oil painting on canvas that displays her vast knowledge of art. I say this because "she colors within the lines" and was a conservative artist, not "crossing the line" at any time. During the Renaissance, more specifically the 1550s, the use of chiaroscuro, perspective, and depth perception were already common. Sofonisba used chiaroscuro on parts of the face by making one side appear lighted and the other with a cast shadow. From her picture, you can tell that she has training and practice from this relatively new style of painting. Also, she uses the new technique of perspective incredibly well and therefore; proving her advanced learning. The lines on the chessboard, along with the edges of the table that itís on both can be drawn back to a vanishing point somewhere in the background. Anguissola masters depth perception by her use of a foreground, background, and a "side ground". The foreground consists of three of her four younger sisters. The background is a faint outline of hills while the "side ground" is made up with shrubbery and her maid. The placement of these objects show that she understands the fact that as distance increases, so does fuzziness. Her knowledge of Renaissance art techniques is the reason she is accepted as an artist.
Being accepted as an artist, Sofonisba Anguissola then needed to be accepted as a 16th century woman. Many of the desired qualities a woman should have are, coincidently?, depicted in her sisters in this same work of art. After doing a lot of research (including three books all published in 1976) , I have come to realize that "The Chess Game" is actually a painting of Sofonisbaís sisters Lucia, Minerva, and Europa and not a self-portrait in the traditional sense. I realized that she might have not painted under the male gaze for a personal ad for herself, but instead through her sisters by use of iconographic symbols. As the oldest daughter, the younger sisters must have looked up to her. It seems that Sofonisba drew this picture either when she was present at this chess game or after it had occurred. For this reason, we can deduce that she acts like a mother because she is taking care of them. We still know that she is intelligent because she must have been the one who taught her little sisters the game of chess. We also know that she is still "in control"because of the fact that her sisters are well dressed in silk and still have a governess around. The sisters all seem healthy and not skin and bones like one would expect and therefore money is not a problem. These symbols show "the unknown" Anguissola through the male gaze indirectly through "the known information" of the painting. So in a way, she is still "promoting" herself in this picture even though sheís not in it. Painting under and in reference to the themes of popular preference allow for Sofonisba to be accepted now as a woman in the Renaissance.
The last and foremost reason that Sofonisba Anguissola is an internationally known Renaissance painter was because of her social life. Contextually speaking, her educational background, family history, and social life all contributed to her popularity. Her educational background not only included an art apprenticeship, but also learning Latin and how to play musical instruments. Success was reached partly due to her family history and mainly because she was born into nobility. A noble birth means she had already a head start even before some male artists. Her father sent one of her drawings to Michelangelo and the positive response was sure to be another explanation to her fame. This incident is what gave her a chance to be an official court painter for Phillip II of Spain in 1559. Some say that Anguissola didnít become famous for just her artistic talent and recognition, but because of her public life. In 1570, she married a Sicilian noble named Fabrizio de Moncada, went to Italy went him, and supposedly received a large sum of money from him. I guess the personal ad from all of her self-portraits and the indirect ad from "The Chess Game" paid off! Fabrizio died and after he did, she went back to Genoa on a ship. At the end of her ship "adventure", she agreed to marry the shipís captain Lomellini. Her soap opera life, confirmed by, "The publicity that her spectacular and romantic career attracted must have instilled in the minds of other talented young women the idea that an artistic career was possible," (1550-1950 pg.106). Even though Sofonisba may not have been known for her artwork, at least by now she was well known. She probably was accepted by society as an artist, female, and at this point an intelligent, enjoyed person.
Sofonisba Anguissola was not in the painting "The Chess Game", but through formal, iconographic, and contextual analysis, her life, as she wanted it to be seen, was shown. We see that she had to go through a series of acceptances by society to now be admired. Accepted by society as an artist was mainly due to the proper art, language, and music education she had the privilege of getting. As for her acceptance as a female in the Renaissance, I claim that she painted in a male gaze style that was somewhat untraditional (showing women in a different way), but still socially acceptable. By not pushing the extremes too far, I believe she got the appreciation of both men and women. Anguissola almost painted the male gaze and the "female gaze" all at once. The male gaze was that she was still all that a man wanted in a woman (motherly, intelligent, and pretty). The female gaze may have not come from the painting itself, but instead her life. She was the first female Renaissance artist to get the credit she deserved, even if most of her success came from her soap-opera life. Women in art began to grow, as more followed in Sofonisbaís footsteps. Because of her, they knew how to be accepted as a female artist and simply emulated what she did. "A grand love story unfolds, too, as she overcame many obstacles to win her beloved husband," (Internet: Burke, Kathleen), but Sofonisba Anguissola also overcame many obstacles to become famous as the first celebrated woman artist of the Renaissance.
Anguissola, Sofonisba. "The Chess Game". Muzeum Nardowe, Pozna?.
Burke, Kathleen. "Sofonisba Anguissola: Renaissance Painter Extraordinaire" Smithsonian Magazine (May 1995): Online Internet. 1995.
Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues95/may95/anguissola.html
Harris, Ann Sutherland and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550-1950 First Edition. New York: Random House Inc., 1976.
Petersen, Karen and J.J Wilson. Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. New York: University Press, 1976.
Sparrow, Walter Shaw. Women Painters of the World.
New York: Hacker Art Books, 1976: pg. 24-27.