Please join me in welcoming Lynn Cullen to Books and Movies today. Lynn is the author of The Creation of Eve (which I loved). Her publicist e-mailed to let me know she was available for a guest post and asked if I had a topic in mind. One of the things that intrigued me about Sofonisba’s story was the restrictions placed on her as a painter because she was a woman. I asked Lynn if she’d write a post delving into that topic and she graciously agreed.
Carrie was interested to knowing what restrictions were put on Sofonisba Anguissola’s development as an artist because she was a woman, which is a wonderful question. In a nutshell, nothing came easily for her. It’s amazing that she even thought she might paint, seeing how women—especially noble women—just didn’t do it then.
To start with, finding a teacher was difficult. Painting was taught through the apprentice system. Boys around the age of nine were expected to go live for five to seven years in a master’s workshop while they learned the ropes. In Sofonisba’s case, she had to find a master who had a situation suitable for a young woman, let alone a noble woman. (Not even men who were noble painted.) I suppose it took some looking, but she was fortunate enough to be taken into the household of Bernandino Campi along with her sister, Elena. They were treated like family members, with Campi’s wife serving as chaperone and surrogate mother. For the three years she was in the Campi household, Sofi learned to mix and grind paint—considered heavy man’s work and most unsuitable to nobility, be it man or woman. She was taught how to draw, though her understanding of the human body was hampered by her inability, due to social taboos, to study more than heads and hands. As Carrie noted in her excellent review of The Creation of Eve, Sofonisba wasn’t allowed to study human bodies from the nude, and so she couldn’t learn how to accurately depict the scantily clothed subjects in the historical or Biblical scenes that painting masters sought to do. (The masters leaned toward epic painting because churches and nobility paid the big bucks.) Instead, Sofonisba practiced on the subjects available–her family.
From this, Sofonisba Anguissola made lemonade out of lemons. If she couldn’t make it big as an epic history painter, she could carve out her own niche by painting portraits of families. We take this for granted now, but back then portraits were reserved for the richest of rich, and mostly adults, (kings, popes, dukes) although portraits might be made of children who were going to go on the marriage market. The pictures of these children were used as advertisements, so to speak, for when their parents would arrange marriages. But Sofonisba offered something new. She painted children, dogs, and servants, and she painted them with great affection and humor. Her work “Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters Playing Chess” seems like a natural subject to us but in Sofonisba’s time, no one was doing this. If she didn’t invent genre painting, she certainly was one of its earliest pioneers. A hundred years later, the Dutch popularized these kind of family scenes in what is known as genre painting, but few were practicing it anywhere in the world in the mid 1500’s, let alone women.
Michelangelo, the most famous painter living at the time, saw one of Sofonisba’s drawings of a laughing child and was so intrigued that he asked for her to do a crying child. Anyone could draw a smile, he said. She came up with her now famous, “Boy Bitten by a Crawfish,” and was promptly invited by the Maestro of Maestros to study with him in Rome. I wonder if he thought that she probably wouldn’t take him up on it. He didn’t know Sofonisba Anguissola if he did. In an era when most women didn’t leave their houses except to go to church, she traveled around Italy (chaperoned, of course,) to paint in the various ducal courts.
Philip II (Felipe in the book) must have thought he was buying his teenage wife quite a rare and whimsical treat by having this woman painter of charming portraits to come teach her. Perhaps Sofi thought of it as a reason to escape a failed romance, (my conjecture in EVE) but unfortunately, because she was a woman, taking a position as a lady-in-waiting actually set back her career. It wasn’t deemed proper for her to sign her work, so paintings that were hers were attributed to the male painters to the king. Only now, more than four centuries later, is credit being given where it is due, to that bold visionary whose talent and creativity could not be suppressed, Sofonisba Anguissola.
Thank you so much, Lynn, for taking the time to answer my question in such depth – and for writing a book that was not only a wonderful story, but left me wanting to learn more.