Sunday, January 20, 2008


In doing some reasearch on the creator of the painting accompanying yesterday's post, it turns out that I am quite taken with Sofonisba Anguissola. Not only are her paintings lovely, the artist's life is also fascinating in that her talent was actually nurtured by the men around her. Unlike so many others, she had a room of her own in which to work, though I do wonder if marrying for the first time relatively late in life didn't have something to do with that. By the time she finally did wed, she had already experienced enough success to be taken seriously as an artist.

Either way, for hoards of female artists, writers and thinkers throughout history, artistic life meant battling gender stereotypes. Expressing creativity and intellectualism in a society that viewed women as capable of mimicry of the masculine intellect, but not blessed by a capacity for original creation or thought had to be frustrating (especially for those women who did feel driven to create). This is, of course, not unique to the Renaissance. It is a view that plagued women for centuries. I am reminded, for example, of a 19th century description of the muse of the German Romantic movement, Charlotte Stieglitz. While her greatest successes in life in the eyes of her poet husband and his literary circle was her peaches and cream beauty and suicide (sacrifice meant to inspire her writer hack husband to poetic heights theretofore unknown!), she is grudgingly accorded the high praise of being "almost masculine in intellect" - and that was 300 years after Sofonisba's time.

This belief that femininity somehow hampers the ability to produce anything truly worthwhile makes me wonder if Anguissola did not purposely choose to stamp out any hint of frivolity in her self-portraiture. In contrast to the idealized feminity of images of other women of her class, Anguissola depicts herself in a dark, somber pallette. Perhaps the simplicity of the image she put out into the world better allowed people to look past her femaleness to focus on her art instead of treating her as an unusually talented dilettante. Of course, it may have also been that there was no model for the female artist of the time, so she chose to follow the advice given for male artists and courtiers - wear black. Either way the sense of style and inventione that was attributed to Anguissola by her peers is significant, because people were able to look past her sex to see her art.

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