The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Sofonisba Anguisola and Lavinia Fontana: A Tale of Two Women Painters

Museo Nacional del Prado
October 22 – February 2, 2020

In his radical political treatise, The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill briefly takes up discussion of female visual artists. If, as he claims, women are as fully able as men, then why, he asks, have there been no highly distinguished women painters? After all, there are numerous renowned female writers. “This shortcoming,” he argues, is obviously explained by “the vast superiority of professional persons over amateurs,” for “women in the educated classes are almost universally taught more or less of some branch or other of the fine arts, but not that they may gain their living or their social consequence by it.” Thus, “women artists are all amateurs. The exceptions are only of the kind which confirm the general truth.”

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, c.1556−57. Oil on canvas. Poland, The Castle Museum in Łańcut.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1625) and Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) were Italian- born artists associated for significant portions of their careers with the Spanish court, which ruled much of Italian art in their time. So, it’s only logical that this show is in Madrid. Thanks in large part to recent American feminist art historians, these two women now attract the attention that they deserve. In some relevant ways, they had rather different backgrounds. Anguissola was raised in a noble family and had a good education. Her father, who facilitated her training by some important painters, even successfully invoking the support of Michelangelo. In her day Anguissola was famous and her self-portraits were much admired. Fontana, by contrast, was the daughter of a prominent artist who trained her. She had 11 children, only three of whom survived her. She lived long enough—almost to 90—to have her portrait done by the young Anthony van Dyck. However, both Anguissola and Fontana were highly successful professionals, thanks to the support of fathers who recognized that under the patriarchal old regime skilled female painters had an economically valuable skill. As Ann Sutherland Harris explains in her classic account:

The adulation of Sofonisba by patrons . . . and the publicity given to . . . outward signs of success were of great historical importance for later women artists. The fabulous wealth her talents gained for her must have inspired other fathers with talented daughters to think of training them in hope of similar success.1

Sofonisba Anguissola, Family Portrait, c.1558. Oil on canvas. The Nivaagaard Collection, Niva (Denmark).

This exhibition presents 62 relatively small paintings and drawings by Anguissola and Fontana in the new wing of the Prado, accompanied by a fully illustrated English catalogue. Anguissola’s Self-Portrait (1554), her earliest work, depicts her holding a book that reveals her name and the date, and identifies her as a virgin. Then Self-Portrait at the Spinet (1556-7) shows that she is master not only of visual art, but also of that keyboard instrument. Old Woman studying the Alphabet with a Laughing Girl (1555-58), in black pencil and charcoal on paper, displays her drawing skills. And Self-Portrait at the Easel (1556-70) represents her painting the Virgin and Child. She also does portraits of others: Family Portrait (1558) and the Chess Game (1555)—almost a meter wide, her largest securely attributed work and only outdoor figure grouping—a remarkable group portrait of three of her sisters and their maidservant.

Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Spinet, 1577. Oil on canvas. Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome.

Fontana also did a Self-Portrait at the Spinet (1577) and, along with the self-portraits and portraits of court figures, a few more surprising works. A Newborn in a Crib (1583) shows the lavish garments of an infant. (At this date she had already had five of her own 11 children.) Her Family Portrait (1595-1603) and A Lady with Four Young Women (Dressing the Bride) (1600-5)—which is almost two meters wide—are complex original compositions. Her Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1600), included in the catalogue but not the show, is a full-scale large historical painting. She did at least two highly ambitious, if not entirely successful works that are quite unlike what one might have expected from a female painter of her era. In her Mars and Venus (1595) the male god grasps Venus’ buttock, as she turns to look at us, holding a daffodil. In Fontana’s Nude Minerva (1613) the goddess, back turned towards us even as she bends her head to view us, is a decidedly gawky nude.

Lavinia Fontana, Mars and Venus, c.1595. Oil on canvas. Fundación Casa de Alba, Madrid.

Often catalogues for old master exhibitions allow the specialists to present their research, thus creating a valuable research tool, a book that will be read by scholars long after the exhibition is closed. I suspect, however, that, apart from reviewers, relatively few people who buy the catalogue will read it through. The day that we visited the Prado, a Spanish holiday, this exhibition was less crowded than the main museum galleries. And that seems to me singularly unfortunate, for A Tale of Two Women Painters raises issues of passionate historical and contemporary interest. The famous Neapolitan philosopher Benedetto Croce has said, in fact, that “all history is contemporary history.” No topic could better illustrate his claim theme than this story of female painters under the cinquecento cultural regime. What I would like to see, then, is accessible writing that plays to the interests of the larger public. The demanding practices of conservation and attributions, discussed in close detail in the catalogue, are essential. Without them this show would not exist. But here, too much of the long catalogue discussion is only of specialist interest, while some straightforward visual questions are inadequately dealt with.

For example, in Anguissola’s The Chess Game (1555), I would love to know which of the two young women playing against each other is about to win. And what are we to make of Anguissola’s Bernardino Campi painting Sofonisba Anguissola (1559) in which the male artist’s right hand hovers directly above her left breast? Is it a visual joke or a mistake? The catalogue presents many details about the success of these women as courtiers, but without offering a developed perspective on specifically feminist issues. Both artists were trained with the support of their fathers, but why, then, did they almost always make small pictures, mostly portraits? Their teachers, who successfully taught them how to paint faces and fabrics, could surely also have showed them how to master perspective and even to compose historical paintings.

The catalogue says that all of Anguissola’s religious works are “totally indebted to other painters.” But her Family Portrait (1595-1603), an elaborate group portrait of female and male figures is called an “experimental” work “in which she pursued a naturalistic stylistic language capable of meeting bourgeois demands in private domestic scenes.” Why, I wonder, did she not pursue such experimentation? The claim then that “in her subsequent works she was limited by the constraints imposed by decorum in court portraiture” does not seem entirely satisfying when, after all, her mere existence as a female painter challenged courtly conventions. But in making these observations, my concern is less to criticize this magnificent pioneering exhibition, than to express gratitude for the ways that it opens up discussion. A Tale of Two Women Painters& raises questions that deserve and are sure to receive ongoing discussion.


1. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950 (New York: 1976), 28.


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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