Sofonisba Anguissola was an extremely successful Italian Renaissance artist who was admired by both Michelangelo and Vasari, who praised her in his ‘Lives of the Artists’. She was born in Cremona, went to Rome and from there gained the attention of Phillip II of Spain who contracted her to be an art tutor and lady-in-waiting to his new Queen, Elisabeth of Valois. When the latter died, the king married her off to a wealthy noble and provided her with a lifetime pension. She was truly a successful woman and lived to the ripe old of 92.
Anguissola executed several self-portraits. In the majority she looks very pious, modest and pure (in one she holds a small book in which is inscribed ‘ Sofonisba, a virgin, made this herself’. These were all qualities expected of a lady (she had the advantage of being born into a noble family). But the most unusual self portrait attributed to her, is one in which she shows herself in the process of being painted by her teacher, Bernadino Campi. In concept and design it is highly innovative – very unlike her previous self portraits.
Here she is portrayed as an extremely impressive and resplendent woman, being larger in scale than Campi and richly dressed. Here not the restrained buttoned-up girl of the previous self portraits but glowing and statuesque – and seemingly about to come to life and walk out of the painting. There has been much discussion over the interpretation of this work.
I personally would refute it is a self portrait. It cannot definitely be attributed. It is often difficult to tell a pupil and master’s work apart. I think it more likely to be a portrait by Campi demonstrating his skill in creating such a successful pupil who has outgrown him in importance. Whereas her features are generalized, his face is real and has the probing quality of a self portrait. He looks out at the viewer as if to say ‘I, Campi, have done this. The skill of my hand has brought Sofonisba to life’. Perhaps he executed it when he discovered she had joined the Court of Philip II of Spain in 1560?
N.B. In most reproductions of this work on the web, the figure of Anguissola is shown with two arms! I simply can’t find out whether this is a later addition or an incomplete change of mind. Only in the wga version shown above, is the arm ‘normal’. If anyone who reads this speaks Italian, could they phone the National Gallery in Siena and ask if they can help?!