Fate dealt Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola a boost and a blow. Born in 16th-century Italy about 20 years apart, the women learned to paint and earned widespread acclaim for their work. From kings to popes, people knew their names. Their reputations blew past borders.

Then they were forgotten.

For over a century, these female Renaissance painters remained in obscurity, ignored by many historians and unknown to the general public. Anguissola’s works were even misattributed to male artists like Titian and Giovanni Battista Moroni.

Now, their legacy is back on the rise. The storied Prado Museum in Spain, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, has a new exhibition wholly dedicated to Anguissola and Fontana’s work and lives (only the second show in the museum history devoted to women artists). It’s titled “A Tale of Two Women Painters.”

And what a tale it is.

Born circa 1535 in Cremona, a city in northern Italy, Anguissola came from a family of means. Then, as now, wealth opened doors.

“Women who were lucky enough to be born into families with a certain amount of money, they would at least get some education. There was no free education back then, and high percentages of illiteracy is something very hard for us to imagine,” says Ann Sutherland Harris, an art historian who co-curated an exhibition with Linda Nochlin in the mid-1970s called “Women Artists, 1550-1950,” which was shown in four cities (Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Austin and Brooklyn). Harris’s and Nochlin’s efforts, and those of other feminist scholars like Eleanor Tufts, were crucial in exhuming forsaken figures like Anguissola and Fontana. (Harris says the second wave of the feminist movement, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, sparked an interest in highlighting women artists of the present and past.)

The oldest of seven, Anguissola had six siblings — five of them sisters. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, had certain ideas about how to raise a young woman, ideas promulgated by Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 text “Il Libro del Cortegiano” (“The Book of the Courtier”), a discussion of the optimal courtier or court lady. Ideally, aristocratic women should be educated and able to do practically everything — paint, compose poetry, sing, play instruments and engage in clever, entertaining discussion.

Around age 10, Anguissola’s father and mother, Bianca Ponzoni, whisked her and one of her sisters off to study under a local painter for a few years.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Family Portrait,” oil on canvas, circa 1558. (Courtesy of the Nivaagaard Collection)
Sofonisba Anguissola, “Family Portrait,” oil on canvas, circa 1558. (Courtesy of the Nivaagaard Collection)

“The zeitgeist dictated the fact that Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzoni decided to educate their many daughters in accord with the new fashion. The decision to let the eldest apprentice with a painter, however, was almost revolutionary,” writes scholar Maria Kusche in the catalogue that accompanied a 1995 exhibition of Anguissola’s work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (The museum held an exhibition featuring Fontana’s art three years later, in 1998.)

Later, Anguissola’s training continued under a different artist; at one point, even Michelangelo assessed and praised her work.

As the daughter of an aristocrat — albeit a low-level one, Harris says — Anguissola could not sell her paintings; that would’ve been unacceptable, given her social status. Instead, she produced portraits, “a whole series of self-portraits — which are very interesting because they’re so varied in the way that she presents herself — which her father would then give to people who would then perhaps give him something back,” Harris adds.

Soon enough, Anguissola was rubbing shoulders with royalty: In 1559, she was invited to join the court of Philip II in Spain, where she became a lady-in-waiting for his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, also known as Isabel de Valois. “She wasn’t hired as a court artist, as a male would have been,” Harris says, “but she gave drawing lessons to the queen.”

Her position at court paid well: In this role, she earned a salary of 100 ducats per year, along with a striking allowance that granted her “two servants, a lady’s maid and a groom, as well as money for the washerwoman, for candles and for horse or mule feed,” Kusche writes. She also received “a lifelong pension of 200 ducats, raised from taxes on the wines produced in Cremona and payable to her father,” which proved a “vital source of income” for Anguissola’s family. While she continued to produce paintings as a lady-in-waiting, her output was hampered by her duty to serve the queen. Anguissola didn’t sign the works she produced during that period, and she never received payment specifically for her art; the unsigned pieces and lack of receipts made her Spanish paintings extremely difficult for historians to track.

She lived a long, eventful life after her time at court — when she left, in the early 1570s, she married a Sicilian nobleman (thanks to a substantial dowry gifted to her by the king). When the Sicilian died, she met and married a sea captain from Genoa.

Lavinia Fontana, “Costanza Alidosi,” oil on canvas, circa 1595. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay)
Lavinia Fontana, “Costanza Alidosi,” oil on canvas, circa 1595. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay)

Her success incentivized others, noted Harris and Nochlin in the catalogue accompanying their 1976-77 exhibition on women artists: “The fabulous wealth her talents gained for her must have inspired other fathers with talented daughters to think of training them in hopes of similar success.”

Lavinia Fontana appeared on the artistic scene in the 1570s. Born in Bologna in 1552, she was the child of a painter, Prospero Fontana, who taught his daughter the art form. Like Anguissola, she was highly educated; she could paint, write in Latin, play the spinet. Unlike Anguissola, Fontana made a robust livelihood that wasn’t tied to a royal.

“She was the first woman artist to have a so to speak normal career,” Harris says, in that she was paid to paint a wide range of works, which was unusual for women artists, and operated out of her own studio.

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” oil on canvas, circa 1577. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca in Rome)
Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” oil on canvas, circa 1577. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca in Rome)

She didn’t stick to still lifes or portraiture — though she did gain renown for her portraits of influential people, from Bolognese noblewomen to politicians, professors and even Pope Gregory XIII — she also painted landscapes and mythological works. Religious pieces, too: She created big altarpieces in Bologna and Rome, where she moved toward the end of her career.

What’s also notable: the dynamics of her household.

“Lavinia Fontana was professionally active before her marriage to a minor painter,” writes Harris and Nochlin. Her spouse, with whom she had 11 children, “is said to have agreed to assist his wife’s career after their marriage. Since his career never developed at all, he apparently did just that. His wife did not simply contribute to the family income; she became its chief source.”

In 16th-century Europe, she was the breadwinner.

As rare female painters, Fontana and Anguissola inspired many. But they had detractors, too. When Fontana was commissioned to create an altarpiece in Rome, painter and biographer Giovanni Baglione groused. “Even though there were many good painters, the best masters who were then working were passed over and the work was given to Lavinia alone … because the figures are larger than lifesize, she became confused and did not succeed as well as she thought,” he wrote, as recounted in Harris and Nochlin’s catalogue.

Lavinia Fontana, “Judith and Holofernes,” oil on canvas, circa 1595. (Courtesy of the Fondazione di culto e religione Ritiro San Pellegrino in Bologna)
Lavinia Fontana, “Judith and Holofernes,” oil on canvas, circa 1595. (Courtesy of the Fondazione di culto e religione Ritiro San Pellegrino in Bologna)

In a review of the 1995 exhibition of Anguissola’s works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Paul Richard, then a Washington Post art critic, wrote, “What’s especially exasperating is the way this show strives to paint her as more impressive than she is. The catalogue begins by calling her, excessively, ‘the first woman painter.’ It closes by describing her, excessively again, as ‘a uniquely spellbinding actress on the stage of time.’ … The museum, in a similar vein, calls her ‘this great artist.’ But she was no such thing. On the evidence presented here — 20 of her works are on view — Anguissola was a painter of the second rank. Her skills were merely middling. Her intentions, for the most part, were entirely conventional.”

Ouch.

Harris acknowledges that some of Anguissola’s work may not make “the best case,” but she points to a few ambitious pieces the artist created before she was met with the constraints of court life. (If she had been practicing, rather than giving drawing lessons to royals, Harris says, “who knows how else Sofonisba would have matured?”)

We may exaggerate the pioneers, Harris notes, but early women painters made others consider the possibility, eventually leading to female artists whose work “absolutely can compete with anybody’s.”

“So, it’s a complicated business,” she adds, “but you’ve got to begin somewhere.”

A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana” is on view through Feb. 2, 2020, at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

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