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Exhibition brings together key works by Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana
Image of the exhibition galleries. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana trained in Cremona and Bologna respectively; 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. Most noted for her portraiture, Anguissola was also summoned to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Isabel de Valois, a role that effectively concealed her true activities.

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, wideranging 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.

Ladies and painters
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. Both dismantled the social stereotypes assigned to women with regard to artistic practice, characterised by scepticism regarding their capabilities.

Anguissola came from a large family of noble origins. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola (ca.1494-1573) promoted and supported his daughter’s artistic training as part of a humanistic education considered appropriate for young people. Sofonisba primarily focused on portraiture and achieved a level of fame which, thanks to her aristocratic origins and her reputation as a virtuous woman, facilitated her arrival at the Spanish court where she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois. This position prevailed over her role as a painter but made her a reference point for other female artists.

Lavinia Fontana’s early years are comparable to those of most women artists. She was the daughter of Prospero Fontana (1512-1579), a prestigious Bolognese painter with whom she trained and worked. The city’s prosperous economic and social situation account for the prominent role of women in its cultural, religious, social and artistic life. Lavinia Fontana was the first woman to open her own studio where she embarked on a notably active career that would extend to Florence and Rome, before moving to the latter city towards the end of her life.

The creation of the myth of Sofonisba Anguissola
Between the ages of 11 and 13, Sofonisba Anguissola undertook her initial artistic training which followed the educational guidelines established for the aristocracy. She thus received classes in music, dance, literature, drawing and painting, taught for the latter two by the painters Bernardino Campi (1522-1591) and Bernardino Gatti (ca.1495-1576). Anguissola proved outstanding in drawing and above all as a portraitist, practising constantly with her own face and by depicting family members.

Her very thorough training is evident in her numerous self-portraits (more than any other woman had produced up to that date) which reflect feminine ideals of the time: discretion, modesty and prudence. Anguissola produced small, bust-length or half-length images that functioned to disseminate her image and her virtues.

Thanks to her father’s diplomacy these self-portraits became “letters of introduction” and rare collector’s items which forged Anguissola’s early fame as a woman painter. The result was the creation of a legend that other women aimed to emulate, most importantly Lavinia Fontana who in her self-portrait of 1577 reused Anguissola’s model in order to emphasise that same status of educated woman and artist.

Portraying auctoritas: the humanist context of Cremona and Bologna 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. With the exception of the portrait of the young Massimiliano Stampa, whose image publicly declares his new status as Marquis of Soncino and which reveals the influence on Anguissola of Giovanni Battista Moroni (ca.1525-1578), in all her other portraits the sitters are seated.

Lavinia Fontana opted for this same typology twenty years later in order to portray artists, lawyers, doctors, humanists and clerics. Seated before a desk and shown engaged in intellectual activity (reinforced by the rhetorical gesture of their hands and their lively gazes), the subjects depicted by the two artists reflect a concept fundamental to this period: their auctoritas, meaning the moral and civic prestige attributable to them through their knowledge and dedication.

Sofonisba Anguissola at the court of Philip II
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.

At this date the most important painter at court was Alonso Sánchez Coello (ca.15311588), “portraitist to the King”, who established the conventions of the court portrait. In addition to the sitter’s physical features these images had to express the family’s dynastic status and its virtues: the Habsburg distance, serenity and severity.

Anguissola followed these criteria but tempered them through her own artistic background and concerns: an interest in a meticulous description of details; a psychological perception that tempers the distance and restraint characteristic of the Spanish Habsburgs; and an all-enveloping and filtered light which softens the figures’ outlines.

Lavinia Fontana: a Bolognese portraitist
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.

As a “narrative portrait” of a family group captured with a degree of everyday informality, Portrait of a Family from the Pinacoteca di Brera offers an excellent example of Fontana’s evolution at the end of the 16th century. This idea persists in Lady with four young Women which captures a domestic moment probably associated with the principal figure’s marriage.

Religious painting
All of Anguissola’s few known religious works are present in the exhibition with the exception of the Madonna dell’Itria in Paternó (Sicily). These are small-format works intended for private devotional spaces and their compositions are always inspired by the work of other artists.

During her formative years in Cremona, Fontana was influenced by the work of her masters Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti and by that of Camillo Boccaccino (ca.1504-1546). These small scenes are notable for their tender, pleasing sensibility and a style close to Correggio (ca.1489-1534) and Parmigianino (1503-1540) that was generally characteristic of Cremonese painters. In Genoa, Anguissola’s religious works repeat formulas and models devised by Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585).

Lavinia Fontana produced an extremely professional body of religious work ranging from small-scale devotional paintings on different supports (copperplate, panel and canvas) to large canvases intended as altar paintings. These are works marked by the spirit of the Counter-Reformation which reveal the influence of Correggio, Denys Calvaert (ca.1540-1619), Niccolò dell’Abbate (ca.1509/12-1571) and the Carracci.

Lavinia Fontana and mythological painting
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.

Bologna’s sophisticated society was capable of reconciling adherence to the postulates of the Counter-Reformation and an enjoyment of mythological images in which the nude (generally female) was the principal motif. This collecting mode extended to Rome where patrons associated with the Papacy commissioned works of this type from Fontana. The few known examples comprise an eloquent testimony to the artist’s ability to pursue the suggestive eroticism characteristic of the schools of Prague and Fontainebleau

The arrangement of the nude figures in her works, which include details that go beyond the standard mythological account in addition to the jewels, veils and transparent fabrics that heighten and draw attention to the sensuality of the bodies, clearly demonstrate Fontana’s powerful capacity for invention, considered the touchstone of art at this period.

The final section in the exhibition includes various works that demonstrate the fame achieved by the two painters.

Eulogistic biographical accounts of these two illustrious women became a flourishing literary genre from the 16th century onwards. A good example is Glorias inmortales, triunfos y heroicas hazañas de ochocientas cuarenta y cinco mujeres, antiguas y modernas [...] by the Valencian author Pedro Pablo de Ribera, published in 1609. It includes an extensive account of Sofonisba Anguissola and shorter ones of Lavinia Fontana and other female artists of the period.

A further proof of the level of fame achieved by Anguissola is the visit that she received from Anthony van Dyck in Palermo a few months before her death. A page in his travel journal and his portrait of the elderly artist recall their moving meeting.

Fontana also inspired laudatory texts and works and the exhibition includes one of the most eloquent: a medal struck in Rome in 1611 with her effigy associated with the practice of painting on one side and an allegory of Painting on the other.

The catalogue
The aim of this project presented by the Museo del Prado to coincide with its Bicentenary year is the study of the artistic personalities of Sofonisba Anguissola (ca.1535-1625) and Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), two of the most important women painters in the history of western art. With entries on 60 works, for the first time this publication brings together the most important creations of these two painters who overcame prevailing prejudices to achieve fame and recognition among their contemporaries, thus dismantling the social stereotype that questioned women’s creative and artistic abilities.

The catalogue is edited and has texts by Leticia Ruiz Gómez and by Michael Cole and Almudena Pérez de Tudela, in addition to a technical study co-written by Maite Jover, María Dolores Gayo and Laura Alba. This publication offers a new assessment of two women painters whose artistic personalities became obscured over time but who have recently been the subject of renewed interest on the part of researchers and the general public.

The English edition of the catalogue benefits from the collaboration of the American Friends of the Prado Museum, a non-profit organisation based in the United States with the principal mission of contributing to the dissemination and conservation of one of the world’s most important collections of European art. American Friends was founded with the aim of strengthening cultural ties between the United States and Spain through the Museo Nacional del Prado and its collections.

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