Guest post: Lynn Cullen, author of The Creation of Eve

lynncullenPlease 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.

creationTo 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.

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15 Responses to Guest post: Lynn Cullen, author of The Creation of Eve

  1. Katy says:

    I love the painting of her sisters playing chess. The youngest one has such a cute smile on her face. It’s not the kind of thing you see in paintings of that time very often.
    .-= Katy´s last blog ..Wishlist Wednesday – Eric Carle’s Dragons Dragons =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Katy – I know – I think part of that is her style, but I also wonder if it’s because she’s a woman and sees people differently?

  2. Fascinating post! I wonder how they determined who had talent for painting at 9 years old.

  3. Awesome guest post. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t sign her own paintings. It’s quite amazing that we even know about Sofonisba at all!
    .-= Amanda (A Bookshelf Monstrosity)´s last blog ..Wading Through My Wishlist =-.

  4. Lynn Cullen says:

    Good question about the 9-year-olds being pegged as painters. I would think that in most cases, they were sons of painters, so they were just going into the family business. In other cases, the boys were simply talented–you know how even nowadays, there’s always that kid in the class who can really draw. It was like that for Michelangelo. He showed promise early on but had to fight his father to become an apprentice. His father was a gentleman and was ashamed for his son to be a lowly painter. Wasn’t Sofonisba’s dad ahead of his time, for promoting his daughter’s talent?

    Thanks, Carrie, for having me guest post!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Lynn – that was one thing that I loved about the book – the fact that her father didn’t limit her because she was a woman, that he encouraged and supported her talent as well as he could within the strictures of society. Thanks so much for answering Kathy’s question!

  5. Thank you to both Carrie and Lynn for this great post.
    .-= Literary Feline´s last blog ..Review: A Deadly Paradise by Grace Brophy =-.

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  7. heidenkind says:

    Great post. It’s amazing how the life of women painters has improved in such a short period of time–Mary Cassat still faced most of the same challenges and obstacles that Sofonisba did, but less than a century after her death, women artists train by sketching nudes as a matter of course!

    I’m interested in how Lynn researched Sofonisba–are there good biographies of her other there, or is the academic research pretty scant?
    .-= heidenkind´s last blog ..Persuasion by Jane Austen =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Tasha – that’s a great question – I can’t remember if there was a bibliography at the end of the book citing any sources – you could start there, if there is one.

  8. Lynn Cullen says:

    I love a good question. About biographies of Sofonisba Anguissola–there are none in print right now. I based my book on Ilya Sandra Perlingieri’s SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA, THE FIRST GREAT WOMAN ARTIST OF THE RENAISSANCE (1992) and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Maria Kusche’s SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA, A RENAISSANCE WOMAN (1995). Both are mentioned in the Author’s Note in THE CREATION OF EVE. Seems like we’re due for a great art book on Sofi!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Lynn – thank you so much- I was hoping you would see this question and stop by to answer!