Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1535 – Palermo, 1625) and Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552 – Rome, 1614) were two female pioneers of painting who achieved fame and recognition among their contemporaries.
Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana trained in two geographically close artistic centres but ones characterised by their particular artistic, social and cultural traditions. They came from different types of families and had different lives although in both cases the role of their fathers had a fundamental influence on their careers. Both were able to overcome the stereotypes that society assigned to women in relation to artistic practice and the deep-rooted scepticism regarding their creative and artistic powers. As a result, they made use of painting to achieve a significant position in the society in which they lived.
One of six daughters, Sofonisba Anguissola was born into a family of the minor nobility in Cremona. Painting offered her the chance to achieve a social position appropriate to her family, the Anguissola-Ponzonis. Her abilities and personality combined with her father’s promotional skills led her to become a celebrated woman and one renowned for her virtue, furthering the possibilities of women in artistic roles and becoming a figure whose legend still survives today.
For Fontana, the daughter of a painter of some prestige, painting was a natural environment which, with the encouragement of her father, offered her a career. She was the first woman painter to be acknowledged as a professional and an artist who transcended the limits and pictorial genres imposed on women. Her extensive, wide-ranging oeuvre includes numerous portraits and religious works for churches and private oratories and she also painted religious compositions, a genre in which the nude was an important element.
Prior to her arrival in Spain, Sofonisba Anguissola had painted portraits of various celebrated individuals of the day which demonstrate her early fame and her gifts in a genre in which Venetian and Lombard influences are clearly evident.
During the years that she spent at the Spanish court Sofonisba Anguissola occupied the role of teacher of drawing and painting to Isabel de Valois while also executing portraits of almost all the members of the royal family. None of the portraits that she produced in Spain are signed. Anguissola’s official position at court was not that of painter and she was in fact “paid” for her works in the form of costly textiles and jewels. The portraits now attributed to her reveal the way in which she adapted her art to the conventions of the Spanish court portrait.
In Bologna and subsequently in Rome, Lavinia Fontana primarily devoted her activities to portraiture, a genre in which she was notable for the variety of typologies she employed. Fontana was undoubtedly the preferred choice of female sitters, whose pretensions to sophistication and luxury are extremely well reflected in her works. Above all, she revealed all her skills in visually expressing the opulence of the clothing, the different textiles, wealth of jewels and exquisite lace, as well as the almost obligatory lapdog. Fontana also included portraits of the children of the city’s leading families in religious compositions painted for private chapels. They are shown alongside their father or mother or as part of a family group.
Lavinia Fontana was the first female artist to paint mythological compositions. Works of this type required her not only to make use of her powers of invention but also to focus on the depiction of the nude, a subject banned to women.