Reclaiming the Female Image: A look back at Self Portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana

Name: Proiti Seal Acharya

Class: UG II

Roll No. : 23



Notions of female beauty and art: A brief overview

In Agnolo Firenzulo’s famous treatise, Delle bellezze delle donne (1542), he lays down the traits that must be found in an ideal woman:

“thick, golden, curly hair; ample, swelling breast; long slender legs”1

Similar ideas about idealised forms of female beauty prevailed during the Renaissance, influencing the depiction of women in works such as Titan’s La Bella. Firenzuolo himself compared this notion to a chimera, because like a chimera, this kind of beauty could only be imagined. A real life manifestation of such beauty would be impossible to encounter. An amalgamation of varied beautiful characteristics of separate women, this ideal beauty was therefore like art itself. Both were outcomes of the consolidation of fragments that were imperfect and transient on their own. Their synthesis, whether in idea or in image, yielded a sublime and complete result. These notions of art and beauty converged in the Renaissance portraiture of women. In these portraits, we often find that women tend to look very similar to each other.2 This is because, at the time, it was believed that the ideal woman must possess “high, round forehead, plucked

eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, ruby lips, white teeth, dark eyes, and graceful hands”.3

Women were also expected to adhere to high moral standards. Chastity was an important feature of their identity, and often the honour of the family lay in a woman’s ability to preserve her chastity before marriage. Through portraits, artists would attempt to convey a woman’s piety, obedience, morality, loyalty and decency, apart from her beauty. Women were expected to mould themselves according to these ideals.

It must be noted that barring a few female painters and patrons, most artists and patrons were male. The male patron would commission the male artist to paint a portrait of a female, who was “twice the object of the male gaze”4. According to Mary D. Garrard, the portraits that depicted this idealised form of female beauty were erotically imbued. This is evident both in case of paintings where the artist’s beloved is the subject, and where courtesans were subjects. These paintings would then be owned by patrons, a fulfilment of their need for power and sensuality.5

Problems faced by Female Artists in the Renaissance:

Not only were the female artists living in an age where their gender as a whole was seen as inferior to men, they also had to face the attempts of male critics and writers trying to define and explain their talents and skills. One commonly held belief was that the existence of the woman artist itself was a “marvel”. The fact that a woman could be as creative, productive, intelligent and talented as a man in the field of painting (and other fields) was looked at as a miracle. This is reflected in the letter the writer Annibale Caro wrote to Amilcare Anguissola, the father of Sofonsiba Anguissola, one of the foremost female painters of the Renaissance. He requested him to send him one of his daughter’s paintings for an exhibition, along with a self portrait of her’s so that he may display the two “marvels” side by side.6 This constant focus on the physical attributes and moral qualities of the female artist, as well as an inclination to view them as anomalous would surely act as an irritant for the artists.

Another trend during the Renaissance was the drawing of parallels between the reproductive process and the creative process. It was believed that it was the male who planted the ‘seed’ in a woman, who was then able to bear his children. In art too, it was the male who was the agent or the actor, and the woman who was the material.7

Female artists were also barred from the study of the nude male, a crucial aspect of training for the artist. Also, since most artists worked under senior artists as apprentices, painting was not seen as a suitable vocation for a woman. Women were expected to be daughters, wives, and mothers- fulfilling familial duties and keeping the home.

In such an atmosphere, indeed the very existence of these female artists, who not only existed, but throve, is almost akin to an act of rebellion.

Self Portraits as a form of self expression and self-construction:

Keeping the context in mine, we examine the self portraits of two prominent female artists of the time. Sofonsiba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana both produced a corpus of work that provides varied scope for scholarship and debate. After their death, for many years, a lot of their paintings were erroneously attributed to men, as was the case with many other female artists of the time. We select 9 of their self portraits, and try to decode them to understand the thought processes of their creators. How did these women grapple with the tensions that rose from the collision of their vocation and gender? How did they choose to represent themselves in a world where men were always trying to define them, explain them? Were they able to reclaim the female image from the clutches of those that sought to control, objectify and exploit it?

Sofonisba Anguissola: A study of Seven Self-Portraits

Born into a noble family in Cremona, Sofonisba Anguissola(1532-1625) received a well rounded education, courtesy of her father, Amilcare Anguissola, who believed that his daughters, and not just his son, should receive training in the arts and other branches of education as well. She trained under Bernadino Campi for three years and then under Bernadino Gatti. Under Gatti, she learnt to appreciate the works of Caravaggio, and maintained correspondence with Michelangelo, who is known to have praised her work. In 1592, invited by King Philip II, She went to Madrid, in Spain, where in addition to being a court painter, she was also a lady in waiting to the third wife of the Kind, Elizabeth of Valois. She married twice and lived up to the age of ninety-three, working tirelessly until cataracts damaged her eyesight.8


c. 1559
Oil on canvas, 111 x 110 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola


This is one of Anguissola’s most fascinating, and most dissected self-portraits. It depicts a scene where her mentor, Bernardino Campi is painting a portrait of her. A number of elements in the painting immediately draw our attention to it. Mary D Garrard, in her essay “Here’s Looking at me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Female Artist”, attempts to explore Anguissola’s intentions behind painting a self portrait using such a unique form. One thing that the form does is “doubly” distance “the painted image of Anguissola from the viewer, because in the artificially constructed space of the painting, Cambi is more “real” than she is. 9 She also finds that the two figures in the painting play out active and passive roles respectively. Campi’s hands are engaged in work, while Anguissola’s are not. However, when we see the artist’s hand at work in the picture, we are reminded of the working artist’s “unseen hand” 10, so in a way, Cambi is objectified.

The fixed gazes of both Campi and Anguissola on the viewer seem to jerk the viewer out of his or her passivity, and question his or her role in the situation. It would seem as if the viewer had interrupted a private moment between the teacher and pupil. The tilt of Campi’s head towards his right, at this intruder, and his arched eyebrows, are indicative of a slight strain of irritation. The twist here is that this gaze might also be fixed on the painter herself, who, in case of this painting, is also one of the subjects of the painting.  Cambi’s expression could also be read as if he is somewhat perplexed, turning his head around at his pupil who is painting him and asking, “I was creating you…and now you are creating me?”. This could also be Anuissola’s way of insisting on the fact that both she and Campi have created Anguissola, the artist. She is not simply the product of Cambi’s mentorship.

In a letter written by painter Francesco Salviati in 1554 to Campi, he describes Anguissola was the product of Cambi’s “beautiful intellect”. This is extensively discussed by Mary D Garrard, in her essay. He says to Campi that Anguissola is “the beautiful Cremonese painter, your creation”.11 Such statements are in keeping with the prevailing notions of female creativity and artistry at the time.

“How could Anguissola have deliberately constructed an image that falsely demeaned her position and undermined her own worth?” asks Gerrard.12 She reads Anguissola’s decision to depict herself in this way as an attempt to “mimic” conventional notions of femininity in order to expose them, as Luce Irigaray argued. 13 To support her argument, she draws the reader’s attention to the fact that Anguissola, in this painting, has placed herself higher that Campi. This could be a subtle way to indicate her superiority. 14 We also notice that Anguissola seems to be looking over him. This could indicate a wish to depict a more expansive artistic vision, beyond the teachings she received from him. Anguissola also depicts Campi as holding a mahlstick, a tools artists used to keep their hand steady as they worked on a painting. According to Garrard, the tool was associated with “artistic timidity” and a “preoccupation with detail”. As Garrard rightly notes, Anguissola paints herself holding a mahlstick in her early self-portraits, but as she matures as an artist, she omits this element from her depiction of herself. Garrard views Anguissola’s decision to include one in Cambi’s hand as a way to establish her greater worth as an artist, looming over his head.15 We must ask what this means for the ‘man-woman’ and ‘teacher-student’ binaries present in the picture.



Oil on canvas, 45 x 34 cm
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

In this self-portrait, we find Anguissola looking directly at the viewer. Her hair is braided and her clothing is austere. The high collar and dark coloured jacket reflect a deviation from the clothing style typically found in the portraits of noblewomen of her day. She seems to have deliberately stayed away from the  ideas of vanity and luxury  traditionally attributed to women 16. We also notice that there are no stray curls or locks of hair on her forehead. This was a typical element of feminine beauty commonly depicted in portraits. One could assume that Sofonisba wanted to avoid painting herself in this way in order to avoid being reduced to an object that would be admired for its beauty and grace, as was the norm in the Renaissance.  “In her self-portraits, then, Anguissola presents herself as “like a man,” avoiding feminine signifiers that might link her with paragons of beauty or courtesans and emphasizing features associated with independence, self-possession, and maturity.”, notes Garrard.17

In her quiet smile we may read a silent, composed confidence. She asserts her place in a male-dominated field just by being who she is, allowing her work to speak for itself.



Self-Portrait at the Easel
c. 1556
Oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm
Muzeum-Zamek, Lancut

In ‘Artist’s Self Portrait’,18 Oman Calabrese explains the inscription that Anguissola inserted into this painting:

“I, Sofonisba Anguissola, unmarried, am the equal of the Muses and Apelles in playing my songs and handling my paints.”

This self portrait, where we find her painting an intimate scene between Madonna and Child, highlights the value and importance she places on herself as an artist. According to Calbrese, she positions herself as an equal of the most celebrated (male) painter in antiquity. This was the ‘rhetorical scheme’ prevalent at the time.19 Even though Anguissola was aware of the notions that society held regarding her gender and her occupation in relation with it, she herself seems to have no qualms about her talent. Her courage and her self-assertion command respect and reverence. Here we find her holding a mahlstick, which, in a way, is a reflection of her honesty as an artist. She shows her vulnerability, as well as her strength. This could also be a statement against the ‘perfect woman’ depicted in female portraits of the time.

Another aspect of this painting demands inspection. We observe that both she and her painting are partially illuminated. This could be her way of suggesting that they make a whole together. Her identity as a creative artist at one with her skills and prowess are further reinforced by this reading.

It must be noted that she is seen as painting a picture of Madonna and Child. Not only does this suggest her position among the greats, but also her piety.20

We must also examine the word “unmarried” in her inscription. This might have been her way of clarifying her virginal and independent status. Anguissola married at the age of forty, and as a noblewoman, she was able to enjoy a certain kind of autonomy that other members of her gender were seldom allowed.


Oil on panel, 20 x 13 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In this painting, according to Garrard, Anguissola’s  “dual self-presentation as painter and model is emphasized by the inscription in the book she holds, at once an identity tag and a signature, which reads: SOPHONISBA ANGUISSOLA VIRGO SE IPSAM FECIT I554”.21 This inscription, intended to notify the reader that she herself had made this, is again a reiteration of her desire to affirm her position as creator. The use of the word Virgo implies two things. One, that she was an unmarried maiden; and two, that she was a self-possessed, self-dependent woman. 22 Anguissola uses the word “Virgo” in as many as eight of her paintings. 23

In this painting, too, we observe the simplicity of her attire and hairstyle. Her eyes are the first element of the painting that the viewer notices. At a time when female creativity was often labelled as a “miracle of nature” and discredited as a natural gift rather than a carefully honed skill, Anguissola seems to be beckoning the reader to look at the world through her eyes. Her eyes represent her artistic vision, which had to override a number of obstacles to achieve its goal. This vision enabled her, as a creator, to imagine in her mind what she wished to paint, and then replicate it on a canvas. They also serve to remind the viewer of their own power and uniqueness, no matter what contemporary ideas about female creativity stated. Art, as a visual medium, depends heavily on the eyes- both for the painter and the viewer. When the viewer looks at this painting, his/her eyes meet the artist’s, and there is a connection, for a fraction of a second, between the origin and the end of the entire artistic process. She seeks to focus on this channel of communication between her and those that view her work. Her solid and forthright gaze at the viewer, one that Perlinghieri calls a “challenging stare” 24 seems to be a way of turning tables- usually it is the viewer that gazes at the painting of a woman, an embodiment of ideal notions of beauty and art- but in this case, a woman gazes out of the frame at the viewer, perhaps goading him to question his/her mentality.


c. 1556
Oil on parchment, 8,3 x 6,4 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This portrait, painted in 1556, shows her holding a large medallion where the monogram of her father is inscribed. The inscription around the edges can be translated as “Painted from a mirror by her own hand, Sofonisba Anguissola, virgin from Cremona.” 25 It was made on vellum and shows the use of the sfumato technique, as with her other paintings 26. It is possible that she made this painting to attract possible patrons. The emblem indicates her noble ancestry. It must be noted that here too, she stresses on her virginal status through the use of the word ‘virgo’, indicating that too her, this was a positive way of defining herself 27. Garrard, studying the use of the word “virtuose” in Vasari and Lama’s description of the work of  Sofonisba Anguissola and her sister Elena Anguissola, argues that it could either be a way of praising their chastity, or a way of acknowledging their artistic talent. She rightly points out that such uncertainty would not arise if they were males. If a male painter were to be described as “virtuose”, no one would have imagined that this way a commendation of his sexual piety.28. The frequency with which Anguissola insisted on her maiden status begs the question, why? One line of argument attributes it to her need to assert her independence. Another claims that she wished to avoid being equated with the subjects of courtesan portraits.29



SA SP 5anguissolaspinet72

These two self portraits of Anguissola show her playing the clavichord. In one she is alone, while in the other she is accompanied by a nurse/maid figure who watches her playing the instrument from the shadows. These two portraits show her as a woman of refined skill, taste and culture. Some have suggested that the presence of the nurse/maid or governess figure also emphasises her virgin status. In these paintings too, we observe her straightforward gaze at the viewer. An unflinching gaze that is in no way coy or bashful. She looks up at the viewer with a self-assured solidity. Her posture is upright and her fingers linger on the keys of her instrument. The presence of the instrument has been read as a reiteration of her self-ownership, because in Renaissance popular culture, keyboard instruments were often associated with female bodies 30. When we see Anguissola, a woman, playing the instruments, we are made to understand that the woman herself is in control of her body. With her own talent, skill, dedication, discipline and seriousness, she is playing the instrument. It is also indicative of her superior class, since at the time, it was mainly the nobility that had access to specialised training in such areas.

Lavinia Fontana: A study of two self portraits

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was an unusual female painter even for her own time. Prevented from joining the academy established by the Caracci family in Bologna because of its focus on drawing from the nude male (as a woman, she was prohibited from doing this), she nevertheless managed to carve out a unique artistic identity for herself. Running an urban workshop in Bologna at a time when most other female painters either worked at courts (Sofonisba Anguissola, Levina Teerlinck, Katerina van Hemessen) or at  convents (Caterina dei Vigri, Platilla Nelli), she was able to build a successful career as professional artist, just like her father, Prospero Fontana. Prospero worked as a fresco painter in Bologna, where Lavinia was born and raised. It was in Bologna where she lived and worked as an adult as well, refusing to leave the city to become a court painter in Rome. She received papal commissions, as did her father, from Gregory XIII and Clement VIII. She established her own workshop in Rome by 1603, and was admitted into the painter’s guild, the Accademia di San Luca, which had recently begun admitting female painters.

We examine two of Fontana’s self portraits, trying to understand how she chose to represent herself on the canvas, in an age when these dictates were laid down by men. 31


Self-Portrait at the Spinet
Oil on canvas, 27 x 24 cm
Accademia di San Luca, Rome

“Fontana’s portrait conveys a sense of serious creative and intellectual achievement not typically found in images of women from the 16th century.”, writes McIver in her essay “Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait Making Music”. 32 Each element in the painting is carefully chosen by Fontana to construct an image that sends across the messages  she wants to convey to the viewer. Her clothing, the instrument, the maid with a notation book open in her hand, and the empty easel by the window are all symbols of class, wealth, learning, accomplishment and artistic skill. Fontana, the painter and the subject, sits facing the viewer, looking at him/her directly. “The cultivated Renaissance gentildonna, with whom Fontana identified, was virtuous and well educated-she wrote poetry, sang, played musical instruments, and participated in theatricals”, writes MvIver.33 Fonatana’s self portrait shows her as possessing these characteristics. The engraving at the top left of the canvas reads “Lavinia virgo Prosperi Fontanae/Filia ex speculo imaginem/oris sui expresi anno 1577” (Lavinia maiden daughter of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577)’34. She operates within the limits imposed on her on account of her gender, but within them, she surrenders nothing 35. Some believe that this portrait was made for her father in law .36 Others are of the opinion that her in-laws, already familiar with her wealth and status, would not require confirmation from a portrait. This portrait was likely painted to attract potential patrons.37

Two elements of this portrait merit focused discussion. Firstly, the spinet. There is no known evidence that she was a musician. Instead, the spinet is read as symbol of her knowledge of music and its parallels with art38. Secondly, the empty easel standing at the window could be her way of beckoning or goading or convincing patrons to give her commissions. It is as if the easel is waiting for a canvas to be mounted on it. The easel is also placed within the home, but near the window. This may be read as Fontana asserting her abilities to manage an art workshop in the city, while simultaneously raising and nurturing a family and the household. It will be of interest to note that Fontana’s husband Gian Paolo Zappi attended to the couple’s children while she was worked. He even helped her with her work by painting frames, arranging for commissions and signing contracts39. This was atypical of the prevailing family structures of the time.

Fontana’s Self Portrait with a Spinet, could therefore be seen as the artist’s desire to present herself as a full, complete, well-rounded woman- who not only personified the attributes thought to be desirable in women, but also an accomplished artist.


Self-Portrait in a Studio
Oil on copper, diameter 16 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


“The small tondo on copper from 1579, in contrast, emphasizes Fontana’s professional and intellectual identity more than her socio economic status” writes Babette Bohn in her essay “Female Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna”40. On 17th October 1578, a scholar and theologian named Alfonso Ciacön wrote to Fontana from Rome, requesting her for a self-portrait which would serve as the model for engraving. He wished to include it in his collection of five hundred portraits of renowned men and women. 41 For this portrait, therefore, Fontana constructs her image in a way that highlights her professional and intellectual capacities. Surrounded by books, casts and richly clothed, she looks up from a piece of paper with a pen in her hand- as if she were just about to begin drawing or writing. In their book ‘Renaissance Self-Portraiture’, Woods-Marsden have argued that this pose and setting was selected to reflect her worth as a humanist scholar and artist, due to the nature of the commission.42

The Nine portraits discussed above give us an idea about how their creators were trying to adjust to their situation as best as they could. Nowhere do we see a complete deviation from the norms they were expected to abide by as women, but neither do we see a wholesome submission to those norms. Using their art, Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana carved out a space for themselves. The wanted to be accepted and respected by society, but at the same time, they displayed a keen sense of awareness about the uniqueness of their position. When we look at their self portraits, we gain an understanding of their struggle to establish themselves in a male-dominated sphere, while at the same time, trying to stay true to their core as artists.

In present times, the female image, in particular, the sexualised female image is a commodity that is bought, sold, consumed, objectified and exploited in advertising, digital media and popular culture. A larger number of women may now have the opportunity to step out of their homes and build careers, but social norms still dictate their appearance and sexuality. The cues women receive from all around tell them that youth and beauty are the most valuable qualities a woman can have, and that their worth is to be measured by their sexual appeal. Women are told how they must look in order to be accepted, how they must dress themselves, and how they must behave. The male gaze is evident in the way women are portrayed in films, television shows, music and advertisements.

Examining these self-portraits from the context of the 21st century, when the female image is still controlled through newer mediums calls for a closer look at subtle ways Anguissola and Fontana might have tried to express and create their own images. This is the age of the selfie- smartphones with front cameras are rampant and have succeeded in generating a culture where people are able to photograph themselves and upload these images online to be presented to a virtual audience. Women are shamed for photographing themselves, or in other words, attempting to create their own image of themselves- just as Anguissola or Montana was attempting to do. Despite being subjected to patriarchal standards and expectations, these female painters continued to assert themselves through their self-portraits. The large numbers of self-portraits they painted reveal their relentlessness.

Do female selfie-takers, who are criticised for being vain and self obsessed, deserve to be looked at differently? After all, they too are part of the symbolic lineage of women who have not been allowed to govern their own image. Whether through the self portrait of the Renaissance or the selfie of now, women have tried to reclaim their images from male power holders for generations- what remains to be seen is how long it takes.









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