Monday, January 23, 2012


Yesterday was my sister's birthday, and in her honor, I present you today with a short history of a famous work of art about sisters: Sofonisba Anguissola's Three Sisters Playing Chess of 1555

Sofonisba Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess, 1555, Cremona Italy 

The girls in this painting are three (out of a total of six) of Sofonisba's younger sisters: Lucia, and Minerva are playing a game of chess and Europa looks cheerfully on.  The scene reminds me of my childhood, where (as my mom describes it) my older sister and I would play together and my younger sister would watch avidly, entertained just by being around her big sisters.  The scene from my childhood didn't include a servant woman looking over at us though.  And my sisters and I played barbies more than we played chess.

How did Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian Renaissance girl, come to paint such a picture?  Born 1532 (plus or minus a couple of years), she has the stunning claim to be the first woman painter in Europe to achieve international recognition and admiration for her work.  Women just weren't painting at this time in European history.  Their education and freedom outside the home was severely limited.  Anguissola was able to succeed as wonderfully as she did for the same reason that any other women of this century succeeded -because she had one of those rare and wonderful fathers who believed (crazy, as all his contemporaries knew) that girls' education should equal that of boys.  So Anguissola and her sisters studied Latin, literature, music and painting.  They even learned chess, also usually considered a men's pursuit by less idiosyncratic fathers.

In 1546, Anguissola traveled with another one of her sisters to live with and learn painting from a great Italian master, Bernardino Campi.  Her education, of course, could not be exactly like that of a boy: she was not allowed to get anywhere near the nude men male artists would study to better understand anatomy.  Thus, she focused on painting faces.  When her apprenticeship was finished, she came home and taught the rest of her sisters how to paint.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait 1556

She was worked as a portraitist, painting on commissions from noblemen and women around her home, and in this way started to attract the attention of the big and powerful people in the art world.  Even Michaelangelo sang her praises.  Her fame caught the attention of King Philip II of Spain, and he hired her to come to the Spanish court, paint portraits of Spanish nobles, and work as an art teacher for his wife.  Anguissola lived and painted into her nineties.

Although she impressed her contemporaries, she was mostly overlooked after her death.  Art Historians who looked at her works characterized them as weak and "feminine", a typical demeaning assessment of any art by a woman artist in the past centuries.  Since the advent of the feminist movement in the 1970s however, there has been more interest and effort in a real understanding of Anguissola's work.  This work continues to go on.

Happy Birthday my big sister!!


  1. So glad Las Meninas did not make the cut for this post. Personally I think that painting is a bit overrated!

    1. Las Meninas doesn't depict sisters, but one princess and all her maids in waiting. According to the wikipedia article on it, it is "one of the most widely analyzed works in western painting", so no wonder you think it's overrated!