Trailblazing Women Artists
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
Welcome to the hidden history of women artists. Were there really women artists in the 1600s and 1700s? Yes, there were. White male artists dominate art books, journal articles, this blog, and museums. These women were pioneers, defying the odds and bias against their gender and perceived abilities.
I wanted to write about women artists for some time, but lack of public access images made that problematic. That has changed with so many institutions creating open access to their collections. When considering topics for my Master’s thesis in art history, I proposed a topic on Italian women Renaissance artists. Lack of documentation and adequate published resources made that difficult and I had to choose a different topic. Art history as a whole was slow to recognize women artists in a well-established white male Eurocentric academic field. Thankfully much has changed. We’ve come a long way with substantial research and increased visibility.
The stories of three artists characterize the state of affairs for sixteenth and seventeenth century women. Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemisia Gentileschi are hardly household names, yet they lived and worked about the same time as famous male artists: Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Bernini. Overshadowed by male artist’s fame and hampered by legal limitations, it is nothing short of amazing that these women left a legacy.
Women in Italy
Women had few options in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the convent or marriage. If there were many daughters in the family, it was obligatory for some to be sent to a life as a nun. Most families could not afford the dowries to marry off multiple daughters. Some nuns acted as patrons or created art for sale. Women were active in elite families as patrons of art and the subjects of portraits, as portraits were important to attract prospective spouses and remember loved ones once women moved to their spouse’s home. Their main role was to marry, have children, and lead quiet domestic lives.
During the Renaissance males were thought to be mentally and physically superior to females, especially in the areas of logic, intellect, reason, and creativity – pretty much, everything except childbirth. In the sixteenth century there were at least forty women artists active in Italy, mostly as painters, but also as engravers and rarely as sculptors. Families either had to be in great need of financial support to allow women to produce and sell art or very supportive of a liberal education and freedom to pursue the arts. The former was usually the case, and the later was rare, which leads us to look more closely at Sofonisba Anguissola.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters, detail,1555, National Museum Poznan, Wikimedia Commons open access. Sofonisba is on the left.
Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) is a tongue twister of a name (So-pho-NIZ-bah Ang-gooey-SOLA). She is the first recorded famous Italian female artist. Sofonisba’s father and mother had six daughters and one son. They came from a poorer but aristocratic family in Cremona, northern Italy. The father Amilcare made the bold decision to give all his children a liberal education, and recognized eldest daughter Sofonisba’s talent early on, as well as the opportunity her talent would give the family to elevate social standing and finances. Sofonisba and her sisters were sent to learn drawing and painting from a male artist, which was rare. Even more unusual, all the sisters became artists, although Sofonisba was the more renown. Amilcare desired his daughters to be refined and cultured. Sofonisba created a number of original self-portraits, even including her sisters, and maidservants. Word soon spread of her talent. Even Michelangelo requested one of her drawings.
Women artists of the sixteenth century were dependent on men to train them, promote their work, and liaison with patrons. It was not by chance women artists achieved success but usually planned through specific strategies by the male family members. It would be socially and professionally unacceptable for women to circulate in a man’s world. Women simply did not inhabit public spaces outside the home. Women could not open a business or even purchase art supplies without access to funds and men generally managed the money. Widows had more buying power and economic freedom, if the family was noble or upper class. Fathers, husbands, or brothers did the dealing and management for women artists.
Portraits were safe subjects for female artists as patrons could sit in a chaperoned environment while the women artists did their work. Women were thought to be inclined towards portraiture because it was copying the likeness of the sitter, therefore, less original and demanding than multi-figure compositions. Because portraiture did not demand great creativity, it was a good fit for women artists. In Sofonisba’s day, painting was considered unnatural for a woman, contrary to her gender. Running a household, managing servants, raising children, and upholding the dignity of her husband’s name was her natural role. However, Sofonisba was heralded for capturing the essence and character of her subjects, a skill only males could have had. In addition, she was thought to have another characteristic unique to males: the ability to innovate. In modern nomenclature, she was a disruptor.
Unlike their male counterparts, female artists worked behind the scenes in the sixteenth century. They were not fresco artists doing in situ work in public places like palaces or churches, but working in their home studios, generally in oil paintings that could be brought to the patron when finished. Women artists at this time were not allowed to draw from live models, especially nudes, which limited their ability to learn multi-figure compositions and how the human body moved and was constructed.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters, 1555, National Museum Poznan, Wikimedia Commons, open access.
Sofonisba’s Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters is a relaxed, informal representation of the girls playing chess. The nanny or maidservant peers over the girl’s game as the youngest reacts to her sister’s next move. Sofonisba looks directly at the viewer. This is a creative and unique family portrait style with beautifully rendered garments and textures. Instead of representing family members sitting or standing stiffly staring at the viewer, they are engaging in an activity. There is a normalcy about the sisters and their interaction. She was especially talented at capturing the expression of children. There is a glimpse into the distance with a quasi-Leonardo da Vinci landscape juxtaposed next to an oak tree. This was completed earlier in her career, before securing a life-changing position.
Just two years later, in 1557, she won her first major commission, painting the portrait of the nine-year-old Marquess Massimiliano Stampa. Standing rather stiffly next to a column, the boy has a look of anticipation. He wears the customary black court clothing which juxtaposes nicely against the green background. His dog naps at his feet. The commission marks the death of the boy’s father and consequently Massimiliano’s inheritance of the family’s title and wealth. The Stampa family ruled much of Lombardy, including Milan. The family has had a castle since the tenth century in Soncino, a small town about twenty-three miles from Sofonisba’s native Cremona in the province of Lombardy. She captures the innocence of the young boy along with his noble status.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa, 1557, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Creative Commons License.
Sofonisba’s father was particularly skilled at promoting her work, for she was the chief breadwinner in the family. Her self-portraits were often gifted to nobility as a way to encourage commissions. She was invited in 1559 by Philip II King of Spain (1527-1598) to reside in the Spanish Court as court painter and lady in waiting to Queen of Spain Isabel de Valois. This was a lucrative position earning a yearly stipend, much more than individual commissioned paintings.
Only five years older than Sofonisba, Phillip II controlled the largest empire in the world by the end of his reign, from southern Italy, Naples, Sicily, parts of northern Europe, the Philippines to South America. Many Spanish people lived in Rome and Naples. They had great economic and diplomatic influence as well as being patrons of the arts. Artists coveted securing commissions from Spanish nobility.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Philip II King of Spain, 1565, Museo del Prado, open access. He holds a rosary in his left hand and the insignia hanging on his chest is the Distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece, a prestigious Christian chivalrous order.
She painted many portraits of the family in the typical somber Spanish style. Her portrait of Phillip II skillfully captures his stern, subdued gaze. Said to have a smile that cut like a knife, he was a shrewd ruler and politician. He is not depicted with military paraphernalia, crowns, or jewels. A simple black garment and dignified deportment sufficed to establish his status.Queen Isabel took Sofonisba on as a personal favorite and gifted Sofonisba a large dowry when Isabel died in 1568. Phillip II then married his fourth wife. Sofonisba retouched the painting and changed some of his clothing and moved his hand from pointing to the insignia to positioning it on the chair.
Following Isabel’s death and her marriage, arranged by Phillip II, Sofonisba achieved financial independence, was widowed, then married again. She continued to paint after moving back to Italy and remained in contact with the Spanish Court. She was highly regarded in Europe by patrons and other artists throughout her career. She lived into her nineties and died in Spanish controlled Sicily.
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Lavinia continued to stretch the boundaries for female artists. Like Sofonisba, Lavinia was trained by her artist father, Prospero, in their home city of Bologna. Unlike Sofonisba, she achieved independent fame and success, not in a royal court, but competing against established male artists on her home turf. We know of about one hundred fifty paintings, more than any other female artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The nucleus of her patronage started with noblewomen of Bologna and expanded to the royal courts of Florence and Spain.
Lavinia was the only surviving child and became the financial provider for the family as her father’s artistic fortunes ebbed with old age, although he was an ambitious and moderately successful artist among the Bolognese elite. Prospero saw the possibilities of her talent and carefully crafted a strategy for Lavinia’s career. Working primarily in portraiture, she also completed larger scale religious and devotional paintings.
Her father selected her husband with the condition that she remain a working artist and he would, along with Prospero, be her manager and agent. One of the marriage stipulations, unheard of at the time, was that the groom reside with the Fontana’s in Bologna. Prospero could not chance her living in her husband’s home, as would have been the custom, and possibly forgo the income. She married at the relatively old age of twenty-four.
Lavinia Fontana, The Annunciation, c. 1576, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Creative Commons License. Oil on copper.
The Annunciation was completed the year she married. Lavinia signed the painting on the base of the Virgin’s chair. This is a small painting probably used as a devotional aid in a household. Lavinia completed a number of small religious paintings for Bolognese nobility. I find her multi-figured compositions less convincing than her portraits. The figures are a little awkward and there is rarely convincing depth of space. This may be due to the lack of training afforded to female artists. Her early paintings gave her entrée to the prosperous Bolognese families, of which there were about forty that made up a ruling oligarchy.
Lavinia Fontana, The Annunciation, c. 1576, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Creative Commons License. Oil on copper. Detail of her signature on the base of the chair.
Her career was carefully structured and managed. Men were necessary to navigate the outside world of patrons, commissions, and finances. Lavinia could not engage directly with patrons without a male present, preferably her father or other male relative. In addition, only a male could sign contracts, hence, she needed a husband as her father could not act indefinitely in that capacity. Patrons praised Lavinia for her manners and cultured style. She gave birth to eleven children (four survived) and moved to Rome in 1604 after her father’s death, as the marriage contract specified that she remain in Bologna until Prospero’s death. Lavinia and her husband abided by the marriage contract, including moving Lavinia’s mother to Rome with them.
Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani, c. 1595, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Creative Commons License.
The Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani exemplifies the refined status of Bolognese elite women painted by Lavinia. Small toy dogs were very popular in royal courts and rich families and are often depicted with women as a sign of the wife’s fidelity. Ginevra was a widow and is dressed in mourning clothes, clutching a handkerchief and looking directly at the viewer. Her husband was a senator in Bologna as was her father, and her father-in-law was Lavinia’s godfather. Patronage and commissions were not mere accidents, but cultivated relationships. The pearls, gold rings, lace, and rich fabrics denote high social status. Widows were often important patrons of the arts as they often managed their dowry funds following their husband’s death.
Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani, c. 1595, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Creative Commons License. Detail of the dog and sleeve.
Lavinia’s detailed portraits depict the luxury fabrics and jewels of her noble patrons. Most paintings are single figures, with dark backgrounds, with rarely any views into the distance or landscapes. Documents show she was aware of Sofonisba, although not in contact directly with her. Shaped by the counter reformation, her religious paintings are straightforward and didactic in nature without excessive drama or elaboration.
It is amazing she produced so many paintings through eleven pregnancies, often having a newborn die, and becoming pregnant again shortly thereafter. It appears she worked more or less continuously, without long absences, which attests to the financial need to produce. While Sofonisba and Lavinia broke ground for women artists, the compelling Artemisia Gentileschi, featured in the next post, ventured into very different territory.
Bohn, Babbette. “From Oxymoron to Virile Paintbrush: Women Artists in Early Modern Europe.” A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, John Wiley & Sons, 2013, pp. 229-49.
Jacobs, Frederika H. “Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1, 1994, pp. 74–101.
Murphy, Caroline P. Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna. Yale University Press, 2003.
Nicholson, Elizabeth S. G., Rebecca Price, Jane McAllister, Karen I. Peterfreund, eds. Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. Skira, 2007.