During the fifteen and sixteenth centuries women held little authority as artists in Italy or in the rest of the world.
It was often believed that women could not achieve true artistic vision because of their perceived lack of intelligence, character, and strength. They were barred from art academies and dissuaded from taking up painting or sculpture. Women were encouraged to stick to more feminine duties like cooking, cleaning, and child bearing. Those who didn’t were perceived as wanton or scandalous. They held an even lower position in society to their married counterparts.
However, a few women did learn to paint (most from their fathers or private tutors) and eventually used their talents to make a living. But women as artists were confined to commissioned portrait painting, which at the time was considered a substandard level of artistic expression.
There were some women that broke the mold.
The Renaissance and Baroque eras opened the world of art to precious few females, but some women’s talents were too extreme to be ignored. It’s time to acknowledge these women for their sacrifice and devotion to the world of art.
They have paved the way for others like them for generations.
Anguissola was born in 1531 to Bianca Ponzoni and Amilcare Anguissola. Her father was a merchant from Cremona. She was the first born of seven children, six of which were girls, each one of which was also a painter. Only one of Sofonisba’s sisters had comparable artistic talent to hers, and she died at a very young age. The rest of her siblings lost their desire to paint after marriage and childbirth.
It was her father’s encouragement that helped Sofonisba overcome the difficulties of being a female artist, and become a success in the world of art. Her enlightened father sent her to study at the Bernardino Campi workshop in 1546 where she honed her already considerable artistic talents. After visiting Rome and Madrid, in 1559 she relocated to Bernardino Gratti’s studio.
While at the Spanish Court, Sofonisba gained the honor of being a “lady-in-waiting” for the Queen of Spain. She was also the Court painter for Philip II and the art instructor for Queen Isabella of Valois. These accomplishments were considerable since Sofonisba was not of Spanish descent. It was during her stay in the Spanish Court that she met and married Fabrizio de Mocado. She was so favored by Philip II that he personally paid her dowry so that she could marry in comfort and style. Together, Fabrizio and Sofonisba moved to Sicily in 1571. Ten years after her husband’s death, Anguessola remarried Orazio Lomellini, a widower.
Sofonisba was considered the first great woman painter of the Renaissance as she achieved international fame.
She was a prolific painter: more than thirty signed works have survived from her time in Cremona, with a total of fifty paintings securely attributed to her. She was well renowned for her skill and attention to detail. Her artistry was unique because even though she was a portraitist by trade she did little to flatter her subjects. Painting them with intense attention to detail, her images not only looked alive, but as if at any moment they might start to speak.
Of all her paintings it is her self portraits that call the most attention to Sofonisba Anguissola as a person. Her paintings convey her culture, status, and position in society as a prominent Northern Italian woman. In none of her self portraits does she depict herself as a painter. Instead she cast herself as a quiet observer and a learned scholar. Her clothes and jewelry show her social status and her penetrating gaze shows her deep-seated intelligence. While her self portraits might be a little stiff, they have a subtle charm to them. She is poised and controlled, the epitome of the well educated and refined Italian woman.
Sofonisba Anguissola eventually went blind. But she was well cared for in her old age by a generous pension given to her by Phillip II. In 1624, Van Dyke visited Sofonisba, then 96, to paint her portrait and get advice about painting techniques. She passed away a year later, her reputation as an internationally celebrated woman painter solidly intact.
The life of Artemisia Gentileschi was wrought with turmoil. She was born to Orazio and Prudentia Monotone Gentileschi in 1593 in Rome. At the tender age of twelve Artemisia’s mother passed away leaving her in the care of her father. Her father, an artist himself, knew nothing of raising a young lady. So he did the best he could and taught his daughter to be an artist, too. He introduced Artemisia to the working artists of Rome. Exposure to the work of Michelangelo influenced her use of contrasting light and shadows (called chiaroscuro) and his influence can be seen in most of her major works.
In 1612 Agostino Tassi, an artist working along side her father, raped Artemisia. For months Tassi tried to visit Artemisia in her chambers privately, often enlisting the help of friends and servants to do so. When he finally managed to secure time alone with Artemisia in her bedroom, he raped her, and then bragged to his friends about his sexual exploits. Artemisia continued a sexual relationship with Tassi after the rape, because he promised her marriage. When these promises did not materialize, Orazio became angry and brought Tassi to trail.
At nineteen, Artemisia faced the most humiliating experience of her life. Her father brought charges again Tassi for injury and damage, stating that because his daughter had been violated that she would never be able to obtain a suitable husband.
The transcripts from the original seven month trial have survived to this day. In them are the sordid details about Tassi’s planned attack on Artemisia. Tassi accused Artemisia of being a rampant wanton who had engaged in sexual intercourse with many men prior to the accusations. He further insulted her artistic talent, stating that on the day in question he was teaching her perspective and line. But, witnesses to the contrary surfaced. They corroborated Artemisia’s story, stating that Tassi had gone to great lengths to be alone with Artemisia. However, despite this Artemisia was tortured with thumb screws and investigated by a midwife to prove her testimony.
It was later revealed to the judge that Tassi had been imprisoned for acts of incest involving his sister-in-law, and that he had attempted to kill his wife, whom he had also acquired by rape. With the overwhelming evidence in her favor Artemisia’s father won his case and Tassi was sentenced to less than a year in prison. Artemisia was quickly married off to Florentine Pierantonio Stiattesi, in an effort to relieve the family of the scandal. To add insult to Artemisia’s injury, Orazio invited Tassi back into their home after he was released from prison.
It was after her horrifying rape trial that Artemisia painted her famous Judith Beheading Holofernes. She painted two versions of this subject both of which displayed not only her great artistic talents, but her intense emotional suffering. Prior depictions of Judith show her as a shrinking violet horrified by her task of beheading the evil Holofernes to save her people. In Artemisia’s versions of the popular biblical image, Judith carves the head of Holofernes from his body with a look of intense determination, and dare I say, even a touch of glee. In 1637 Artemisia began to seek new patrons. Among her famous roster of paid contributors were Philip IV of Spain, Charles I of England and Prince Karl von Liechtenstein, besides numerous royal and papal families. She stayed in England from 1638 to 1641. She retired to Naples after Charles I died during the English civil war.
Artemisia is considered the most important female artist of the pre-modern era. She was the first female painter to break free of traditional portrait painting and move onto full scale religious and historical subjects. Gentileschi has recently gained national recognition due to a major motion picture entitled Artemisia, about her life. However, the film does little to credit her amazing artistic abilities, displays numerous historical inaccuracies, and places most of its emphasis on Artemisia’s sexual relationship with Tassi. It portrays Tassi and Artemisia as willing lovers and Tassi (whose artistic talent was substandard to Artemisia and her father’s considerable abilities) as her teacher.
Written by: Jamie Sue Austin