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Sofonisba Anguissola: 1532-1625

As the eldest of six daughters from a noble family of the north Italian city of Cremona, Sofonisba’s achievements must be seen against the backdrop of Renaissance humanist thought regarding the education of noblewomen. In the early 16th century, the widely circulated publication, The Courtier, by Baldesare Castiglione, became the foremost proponent advocating the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men. For noblewomen like Sofonisba this meant instruction not only in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also training in the court arts--music, writing, drawing, and painting.

Sofonisba was one of the first women to gain a international reputation as a painter. She studied under Campi until he moved away and this established a precedent of encouraging male painters to take on female students. Michelangelo even sent her some drawings, which she copied and sent back to him for criticism. Sofonisba's apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art.

When she was already well known, Anguissola went to Milan sometime in 1558, where she painted the Duke of Alba who in turn recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. In 1559 she was appointed court portrait painter and lady-in-waiting to Spain's new queen, Elizabeth of Valois, the third wife of King Philip II. She stayed in Spain for 18 years.

A total of about 50 works have been securely attributed to Sofonisba. Her works can be seen at galleries in Bergamo, Budapest, Madrid (Museo del Prado), Naples, Siena, and Florence (Uffizi Gallery). Sofonisba is important to feminist art historians. Although there has never been a period in Western history in which women were completely absent in the visual arts, Anguissola's great success opened the way for larger numbers of women to pursue serious careers as artists.

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