For Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1535–1625) and Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), the subjects of the exhibition “A Tale of Two Women Painters,” on view at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid until the beginning of February, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were indeed the best of times and the worst of times to be an artist.
Both women were unusually encouraged by their families to pursue careers as painters. The Anguissola hailed from the northern Italian town of Cremona, which, as part of the Duchy of Milan, was under Spanish influence in the 1530s when Sofonisba was born, the first of six daughters and a son. The family claimed to be noble descendants of ancient Carthaginians and were well-off enough to send their two eldest daughters, beginning in 1546, to learn how to paint with local masters (Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti); they were not so well-off, however, that her father, Amilcare, could resist exploiting Sofonisba’s artistic gifts for his own enrichment. By 1559, when she left Italy for the Spanish court in Madrid to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Isabel de Valois, the French queen of the powerful Habsburg king Philip II, Sofonisba was already a well-established portraitist in her own right. The artisanal Fontana family, in contrast, was a Bolognese institution. Lavinia’s father, Prospero Fontana, a successful Mannerist painter, provided artworks for numerous buildings in the city, as well as frescoes for the private residences of Pope Julius III and Francis I, king of France. In addition, he trained a roster of important artists in his studio, including Lodovico and Agostino Carracci, as well as his talented daughter. Both fathers clearly held their daughters in high esteem, naming them after illustrious women from antiquity (Sophonisba was a Carthaginian princess noted by Livy; Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas in book VII of the Aeneid). Both women came of age in the second half of the sixteenth century. Although Anguissola was seventeen years older than Fontana, she would outlive her by more than a decade.
These were decades of ridiculous prosperity bracketed between two moments of immeasurable exploitation—the “discovery” and colonization of new worlds at the one end, injecting old empires with fresh resources, and the commencement of the slave trade at the other. This influx of newly accessed wealth found its way into the visual imagination of the European elite that held political power and patronized the arts. Renaissance artists typically signaled the identity, status, and virtue of their subjects—men and women of extreme privilege—by including Latin inscriptions, coats of arms, and other heraldic symbols often lurking on the margins of religious works commissioned for churches and of the relatively modest portraits intended for private residences. The emboldened patrons of the brave new world of conspicuous consumption that dawned in the sixteenth century, in contrast, opted for grandeur and bling.
In one image by Anguissola, a teenage queen holds a small gold-framed portrait of her Spanish king in her right hand, but looks out at the spectator with the unshakable confidence to be expected from the daughter of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici. She carries the weight of the Habsburg empire on her body garbed in black velvet enlivened by delicate lace and heavy gems—rubies, diamonds, pearls, silver, gold, and other treasures brought back from New Spain. Like the gorgeous jasper column against which she rests her hand, she is the very personification of Fortitude. In another portrait, this time by Fontana, the viewer is confronted by the icy gaze of one of Bologna’s aristocratic ladies, seated in a cavernous room that gives a view onto further rooms and external properties. Like a visual inventory, the full-length portrait records the economic status of the sitter in detail—seated on an opulent red chair decorated with gold tassels, she wears an exquisite bejewelled gown in which the voluminous undersleeves have been pulled out through the slits on the shoulder to show off the excess. She is the embodiment of material abundance. In the naturalistic light illuminating her face, the artist has made sure to underscore the woman’s soggiogaia (the double chin that Renaissance men found especially sexy).¹ Two heavy gold bracelets lie on the table, as if the sitter couldn’t be bothered to put on any more of her wealth. Even her well-groomed lapdog—a designer puppy bred to keep courtly ladies entertained, warm, and out of trouble—seems to be judging us. This is pure Generation Wealth (dir. Lauren Greenfield, 2018), the Renaissance edition.
The vibrant material world of the late Renaissance provided the two “Women Painters” of the exhibition ample opportunity to showcase their talent. If Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana are not household names today, this is no fault of theirs. Anguissola holds the rare distinction of having been the most prolific self-portraitist of the Renaissance (beating out Albrecht Dürer); and Fontana is credited with around one hundred and fifty works, including numerous public commissions, and created them while producing eleven children. Anguissola painted for princes, popes, queens, and kings, was praised by Michelangelo, and received a visit from an infatuated fanboy named Anthony van Dyck, who enthusiastically recorded the meeting in his Italian sketchbook. (The Flemish artist’s portrait of the Grande Dame is on view in the final room at the Prado exhibition). Fontana, as the daughter of an established artist, was the first woman to paint large-scale altarpieces and mythological nudes and—more important—to run her own independent workshop.
In this regard, these were the best of times for highly skilled painters. However, since they were exceptional women in an aggressively hierarchical man’s world, it was also the worst of times. Despite their extraordinary capabilities—or, sadly, because of them—they were held up as freaks of nature and trolled by lesser men. In a collective biography dedicated to artists from Ferrara and Lombardy, Giorgio Vasari, for instance, could not but qualify his praise for Anguissola with a revealing rhetorical question that reduced her genius to a biological essentialism: “if women know so well how to produce living men, what marvel is it that those who wish are also so well able to create them in painting?”² Fontana, in turn, was remembered by one source “for the particularity that she was a woman” and congratulated for having “risen above the usual course of her sex, for whom wool and linen are the sole materials appropriate for their fingers and hands.”³ Oof!
It may be difficult for the modern reader to pass over these lines without a big eye roll, but one might take into consideration that it was only five decades ago that a New York City gallerist said blithely to an art history professor from Vassar College: “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?”4 Not too long after that encounter, Linda Nochlin transformed Richard Feigen’s glib aside into the manifesto that launched feminist art history in America and abroad. The essay, first published in 1971, laid bare the institutional prejudices and impediments—the system itself—that prevented women artists from succeeding: “Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards,” she concluded, “it is almost incredible that even a small percentage of women actually sought a profession in the arts.”5
Anguissola and Fontana stand tall in a field made small by historical, social, and institutional traditions and the agents that uphold them. Nearly four centuries after their deaths, the Prado has sought to address this imbalance. In the director’s preface to the catalogue, Miguel Falomir Faus stipulates that the exhibition “makes up for a shortfall, albeit one that is not exclusive to the Prado but is unfortunately shared by all galleries of Old Master paintings: the scant presence, if not total absence, of women artists.”6 Anguissola and Fontana were subjected not only to the kinds of double standards that can still be found in today’s art world—where female artists suffer from far less representation in galleries, collections, and auctions, and continue to earn systematically less than their male counterparts—but they had to lay the groundwork for women to enter the profession at all. The best of times were (and remain) reserved first and foremost for the boys.
In light of the social and economic restrictions placed upon them because of their gender, it is no surprise that Anguissola and Fontana were especially astute observers of complex power relations. This is evident in their portraits of powerful and wealthy men and women, a category at which both artists excelled, but it comes through even in a seemingly naive scene of a chess game between siblings. In an especially charming painting, Sofonisba portrayed three of her younger sisters, dressed in sumptuous fabrics decorated with gleaming gold threads, playing outdoors. Lucia, the oldest on the left, has just defeated Minerva, who raises her hand in surprise, protest, and concession. Europa, the youngest in this scene, watches with glee as the sibling closest to her in age is trumped (anyone who has suffered the humiliations of being a young child with many clever and capable older sisters will identify immediately with Europa’s giddy expression of schadenfreude). Gazing on from the margins is the ancilla (or maidservant) who seems stumped by the erudite pastimes of the Anguissola girls. The painting is a wonderful study of both familial and social hierarchies as well as a bold, precocious example of the kind of genre scenes that would be popularized later on by big-name male artists, such as Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio.
Poor Minerva often got the short end of the stick. In the Family Portrait from some years later, it is she rather than the help who has been shuffled to the margins, as the pater familias, Amilcare, sits proudly in the center holding the hand of his beloved (and only) son Asdrubale. Conservators have gained much insight into Sofonisba’s technique from this work, which is unfinished. While the faces have been carefully painted, along with the upper portions of Minerva’s dress and the distant mountainous landscape, parts of the composition float unmoored upon a brownish-gray ground. But even in this unrealized state, it is a powerful psychological portrait. Minerva struggles to be seen by her father, but his attention is split between her younger brother (within the composition) and the unknown beholder (on the other side of the picture plane). We, the belated arrivals to this family romance, command more attention from Amilcare than Minerva. She is like the little white dog in the lower right corner, quietly waiting like a good pet, hoping for a sign of affection. At the same time, by placing her above Asdrubale and virtually on par with the father, Sofonisba grants Minerva some agency to at least look down upon her little brother. It is a subtle and ambivalent gesture, but a powerful one nonetheless.
In 1554 the Florentine painter Francesco Salviati wrote to Bernardino Campi to congratulate him on his great achievement, which he described as a “work” borne from Campi’s “beautiful intellect.” He wasn’t talking about a painting, he was talking about his prized student Sofonisba.7 What means did a young aristocratic female wunderkind, trying to make it in a man’s world, have to defend herself against backhanded slights? Sometimes it was better to retaliate through art. And indeed one would like to think that the devastatingly witty double portrait Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1559), painted a couple of years later, was her comeback to those supercilious remarks. To the question that would need to wait some centuries before it could be fully articulated, Anguissola responds here without flinching and without mercy: there are no “great” women “artists” because those categories have been designed by men for men. Sofonisba, however, was exceedingly skilled at ventriloquizing that masculinist discourse in painting. After all, Campi may have been her master, but he was also her social and artistic inferior. If in life women had to demure and make themselves smaller so as not to threaten the big men around them, here she has painted herself larger than life, holding a pair of gloves in her left hand, towering over him. (Despite doubts raised in the exhibition about the authorship of the painting, one cannot imagine a male artist choosing such an unusual arrangement.) The invention, however, is not cruel, for there is much humor in it, too. She depicts Campi painting, with the assistance of a mahlstick, the lace detail of her dress in the portrait within the portrait and—in a cunning twist—she has rendered her own self-portrait in an imitation of Campi’s somewhat flat, dull style while painting her master in her own energetic, glowing style.8
Fontana, too, was capable of causing some serious gender trouble—as one of the few female artists of the Renaissance to paint large-scale nudes. We might pause for a moment to reflect upon the unruly Mars and Venus (ca. 1595). Fontana is said to have painted nudes based on the women around her; on this occasion, however, she is looking at art rather than at life. The painting is described in the catalogue in iconographical terms as “linked to a new acceptance of the depiction of the female buttocks,” following the midcentury discovery of an ancient statue in Rome known as the Venus Callipyge (the Venus of the “beautiful bottom”). The originality of Fontana’s image is further circumscribed by the suggestion that it was inspired by the mythological paintings of Venetian old masters such as Titian.9 No doubt, but it is also so much more. Rather than a simple imitation, it is a pointed riposte. Indeed, it would have been a bold curatorial move to include Titian’s Venus and Adonis from the Prado’s collection in “A Tale of Two Women Painters,” for it is often when Anguissola’s and Fontana’s works are juxtaposed with the paintings of their male peers that the conceptual brilliance of their inventions shines forth. This omission was in many ways a missed opportunity. A comparison of this sort makes clear what is at stake for an artist like Fontana in an image such as this. To simply equate the motivations behind the two works based on thematic similarities or as a chronology of influence would be akin to ignoring the feminist critique behind Cindy Sherman’s photographs of medical mannequins in pornographic poses (the “Sex Pictures,” 1992) and lumping them with Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic sculptures of pubescent female forms because they both happen to be twentieth-
century works about “dolls.”
Titian’s poesie or mythological paintings (commissioned by Philip II in the 1550s) will be the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, later this spring. The Venus and Adonis was one in a series of such paintings produced for elite male collectors across Europe (the first version, now lost, was for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III). They were conversation pieces and prestige fetishes. In a well-known letter to Venetian art collector Alessandro Contarini, the Renaissance art critic Lodovico Dolce describes a version of Venus and Adonis that he had just seen in Titian’s studio, noting that the painter’s brush “strokes” to life the alluring fold of flesh on Venus’s bottom and that there isn’t a man “so chilled by age or so hard in his makeup that he does not feel himself growing warm and tender, and the whole of his blood stirring in his veins” when he gazes upon Titian’s Venus.10 Locker room talk, no doubt.
Fontana’s Mars and Venus is in no uncertain terms an image of a gratuitous butt grab. Indeed, the artist has painted the offending male hand with its darker skin tone, clear contours, and subtle cast shadows in an almost sculptural manner, as if it were a real hand on the flat surface of the canvas. If in Titian’s poesie the goddess of love could be overcome by her lust for a mortal (Adonis), in Fontana’s Mars and Venus, she uses her beauty to emasculate the god of war (Mars). All the would-be phallic symbols beneath Mars—the sword on the ground and the menacing spike on the shield angled in Venus’s direction—culminate in a flaccid white sleeve drooping down from the edge of the bed. As in Family Portrait and Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, here, too, the male figure has been positioned just below the female nude. Venus turns back to address her viewer (which would have been the artist herself in the first instance). In her hand she holds a daffodil, a complex symbol of narcissism, death, and resurrection. The placement of this flower seems momentarily to distract Mars, literally caught red-handed, as he looks up sheepishly at Venus. Rather than mirroring what previous Renaissance artists had done, Fontana’s scene subverts the machismo of the mythological tradition to say something critical about the taxing conditions of being a woman and a painter. A male viewer might misread her glance as seductive, but a female witness to this scene recognizes in Venus’s look the message: #MeToo.
Some might charge that to call Anguissola and Fontana “feminists” is anachronistic. This does not mean, however, that feminist themes are not embedded in their works. The glowing, haunted, magnificent nocturnal Judith and Holofernes, for instance, would have been received very differently by Venetian aesthetes such as Dolce and Contarini than by Laerzia Rossi Ratta, for whom the mesmerizing painting was destined. A well-connected member of the educated Bolognese aristocracy, Ratta was, like Judith, a widow, and would have appreciated the personal parallels between herself and the “emasculating warrior heroine.”11 In the book of Judith, the beautiful young widow seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes in order to gain access to his private quarters and assassinate him before he can destroy her hometown of Bethulia. The lexical proximity of “Judith” (Giuditta) and “Justice” (Giustizia) in Italian made her an especially popular late Renaissance symbol for the triumph of justice over injustice. Fontana’s complete control of her art can be seen in the way she modulates her brushwork from the flat lifelessness of Holofernes’s severed head to the inspired handling of the gems and the delicate gold threads on Judith’s dress, glimmering like fiery embers in the supernatural light that comes down from above to bless her. For another version of the same subject, Fontana is said to have modeled the figure of Judith after her own likeness. Swap the sword for a brush and we can detect a certain resemblance here, too.
Fontana’s Judith and Holofernes was painted some years ahead of Caravaggio’s cold, squeamish version of the same subject (now in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome) and two decades before the most celebrated of early modern “feminist” manifestos—Artemisia Gentileschi’s intense, muscular Judith and Holofernes (now in the Uffizi, Florence). Gentileschi will be the focus of a monographic show to open this spring at the National Gallery, London. While it might seem that the art world is at long last entering the “best of times” for the representation of women artists, it is important to remember that institutions must also invest in broadening the narratives around these historical figures. It is not enough to simply celebrate them, to render them “great” through inclusion. Rather (to quote the closing sentence of Nochlin’s essay) “using their situation as underdogs and outsiders as a vantage point, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weakness in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought and true greatness are challenges open to anyone—man or woman—courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.”12
If the wall text and catalogue entries for “A Tale of Two Women Painters” resort on occasion to reliable old master narratives that seek to map out chains of influence (usually back to male artists, whether established or virtually unknown), to list provenance histories, and to clarify iconographical details without much consideration for the restrictive circumstances of the two women artists showcased, one must nevertheless applaud the exhibition as part of a larger sustained initiative at the Prado to stage a series of innovative and critically engaged shows. The presentation of Anguissola and Fontana serves as a respectable sequel to the 2016–17 exhibition “The Art of Clara Peeters,” co-organized with the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp, dedicated to the seventeenth-century Flemish still life painter. It also follows the experimental show “The Other’s Gaze: Spaces of Difference,” a thematic itinerary through the collection that explored same-sex relationships, cross-dressing, and other LGBTQ issues. The historical examination of non-normative sexual identities in the art of the past, staged in conjunction with the World Pride festival during the summer of 2017, served as a fitting tribute to a city made proud and beautiful by Pedro Almodóvar (among others) and to the third European Union country to legalize same-sex marriage (in 2005). Following this thematic approach, the Prado will open this spring “Awkward Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology and the Visual Arts in Spain (1833–1931),” which promises to undertake the kind of institutional critique of the very structures and systems made by and for men—the academy, the museum, the canon, and the monographic exhibition—that have been the traditional gatekeepers of artistic “greatness.”
1 Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogo delle bellezze delle donne, Venice, Giovanni Griffio, 1552, p. 40.
2 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vol. 2, translated by Gaston du C. de Vere, London, Everyman’s Library, 1996, p. 468.
3 Andrés Ximénez quoted in Leticia Ruiz Gómez, “A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana,” A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, ed. Leticia Ruiz Gómez, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2019, p. 28.
4 Richard Feigen quoted in Maura Reilly, “A Dialogue with Linda Nochlin, the Maverick She,” Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, ed. Maura Reilly, London, Thames & Hudson, 2015, p. 15.
5 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Art and Sexual Politics, eds. Elizabeth C. Baker and Thomas E. Hess, London, Collier Macmillan, 1973, p. 26.
6 Miguel Falomir in A Tale of Two Women Painters, n.p.
7 Salviati quoted in Mary Garrard, “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly, 47/3, 1994, pp. 560–61.
8 Noted by Ilya Sandra Perlingieri and discussed in Maria H. Loh, Still Lives: Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old Master, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 69.
9 Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo in A Tale of Two Women Painters, p. 222.
10 Dolce quoted in Mark Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, Toronto: University of Toronto, 2000, pp. 214–217.
11 Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 151–55.
12 Nochlin, p. 37.
This article appears under the title “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face” in the February 2020 issue, pp. 56–63.