For class a few weeks back, we read a fascinating article by Mary Gerrard called “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist.” Gerrard discusses multiple paintings of Anguissola’s and discusses whether or not the argument can be made that Anguissola was empowering herself through her depictions of herself. The first painting she speaks of is the one that I want to discuss here because it really made me think outside the box!
Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola is an interesting portrait because, as Gerrard argues, there are actually three people present in it. There is (1) Bernardino Campi, Anguissola’s former teacher, who is painting the portrait of (2) Anguissola, and (3) the invisible Anguissola, who painted this portrait in real life. Because of the presence of two Anguissolas, we get to experience the tension between women being seen as subjects and objects of art. Gerrard discusses that here, Anguissola is both the artist (the subject) and a theme for the male artist to “create” (the object).
Gerrard brings up multiple possible things this Renaissance woman artist could have been saying through this painting. Anguissola could have been depicting her former teacher as the one who “created” her, as in he taught her the things she knew and thus made her into the artist she was. Because she paints him painting a portrait of her and doesn’t identify herself as an artist in that portrait that he is creating, this puts him in a powerful position. This would have been the most accepted interpretation of this painting at the time because it put the man in the dominant role.
However, Anguissola could have been suggesting that her skill is above Campi’s through depicting him with a mahl stick to steady his hand. She could have been suggesting this also through painting his portrait as equal to hers, if not in a lesser role. We see an equal number of body parts depicted for both Anguissola and Campi — each have a hand, a face, and a neck semi-hidden by a collar. Anguissola’s portrait looks directly out at the audience, whereas Campi’s looks over his shoulder at us, so we see more of her face than his. She is taller than he is in this painting, too, so she is putting herself in a dominant position in terms of hierarchical scale. Not to mention that Anguissola is asserting her great skill through painting both of the figures with an acute accuracy that was referred to by Giorgio Vasari as a “breathing likeness.”
She could have been saying nothing about the skill or the power of either herself or Campi with this portrait, too! Another interpretation is that she is playing with the subject-object position within this piece of art. She, the painter, has power to create beautiful works of art, and yet the world sees her as something that Campi created. She is more easily accepted by society as an object of a painting, a wonder to be marveled at, rather than a creative individual earning a living. In this portrait, Anguissola and Campi both are the painters and the painted. They both are in a unique role of object and subject.
The question that remains is whether or not Sofonisba Anguissola had the intention to empower herself with this particular artwork. It is easy to read in a few different ways! Mary Gerrard’s article made me think more deeply about the experience of women Renaissance artists and the level to which they were embraced by society. I hope you enjoyed thinking through these themes with me! Have a great week 🙂