Amongst the first female artists to have an international reputation was Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Sofonisba set a precedent early on in her life when she became the first female apprentice of local painters as well as enrolling in art school. Sofonisba became a pioneer of genre and portrait painting which often featured strong, intellectual females. Sofonisba was born into a century where women were often treated as inferior creatures to men and settled mostly on domesticated duties, she is credited for raising awareness about the strength and vitality of women through her art. She utilized her art to denounce the inferiority complex faced by women during those times and showed them as strong, smart and independent individuals – equal to men in every sense.
Sofonisba Anguissola was born in 1532 in Cremona, Italy into a noble family of eight and she was the eldest in six daughters. Sofonisba’s strong will and fierce independence can be attributed a lot to her upbringing by her father who raised all his daughters well and smartly. From earlier on he instilled in them the importance of education and learning different languages – he taught them all how to survive in the male dominated world. In simple terms he raised ambitious and progressive daughters who were reflections of their father and Sofonisba was the strongest one. Seeing his daughter’s interest in art, her father sent her to be trained for three years with Bernardino Gatti. Soon her artistic talents impressed some of the greats like Michelangelo who mentored her via letters and encouraged her to push the boundaries. With Michelangelos and her father’s strong backing much of Sofonisba’s work started getting attention in Italy and abroad both. Soon Sofonisba was painting in the Spanish Court in Madrid alongside being the lady-in-waiting and painting instructor of Elizabeth de Valois of Spain – the then reigning queen of Spain. What set Sofonisba apart from the other artists of those times and even today is the real-life quality of her portraits. In her paintings, the individuals are shown as real people doing ordinary tasks but are shown as smart and highly intellectual. In her paintings, the female individuals are seen as dignified with no materialistic elements attached to them like wigs or jewelry. The focus in her paintings is not on feminine beauty but rather than on the intellectual and creative aspect of her female objects. Sofonisba is credited for being the first female artist who opened the doors for other female artists in terms of showing them that a female too can have a strong career as an artist.
If we examine one of her masterpieces The Chess, we can see her distinct style and strength as an artist on full display. The painting features females, Sofonisba’s real life sisters who modeled for her for this painting, huddled together in a group around a game of chess. In the painting each sister is gazing adoringly at the other one with a look of respect and almost as if she is a role model. The objective of the painting was to signify the concept of having a strong united female community. Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the true Renaissance painters who managed to break barriers and build a strong name for herself the female artistic community.