Self-portraiture reveals much more than the artist’s physical appearance: it weaves symbol and subtle narrative and captures a projected self-image within an historical moment. A self-portrait captures the conception of an artist as artist, her essential energy and style—not simply with the choice of posture and clothing and color but with aesthetic and motif and compositional tone. As we come full swing into March and Women’s History Month, we’ll be looking at the remarkable histories of a few exemplary artists, at women who overcame the difficulties of their position and helped to change the conception of women’s role in the art world.
In his illuminating study of self-portraiture, Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville press— printed with 250 gorgeous full-color illustrations—Omar Calabrese explores the history of self-portraiture as a genre, with its all of its subtle complexities. In his insightful chapter on women and the self-portrait, Calabrese focuses on several Renaissance women who developed their identity and role as artists in a profession that at the time was not eager to accept women into its ranks. Among them, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625, born into an aristocratic Italian family who ensured her education in the fine arts from a young age; she later studied with Michelangelo) developed a bold style with a strong sense of identity, and her successes helped to open the painting profession to women of future generations.
In her self-portrait above, Sofonisba expresses her sprezzatura—an intricate display of elegance and wit—with a bold flourish. Calabrese explains:
One of Sofonisba’s self-portraits where she is shown painting the Madonna and Child, contains an indicative inscription: “I, Sofonisba Anguissola, unmarried, am the equal of the Muses and Apelles in playing my songs and handling my paints.” In other words, Anguissola compares herself to the most renowned (male) painter in antiquity, thereby following a rhetorical scheme that had become common in the late Renaissance.
Sofonisba was one of the few Renaissance women to paint self-portraits in her later years, and she painted herself even at the age of seventy-eight, aged but with a clear, fearless expression—a self-portrait in direct opposition to the stereotypes of the canon, which coveted youth and idealized beauty. Her courage is self-evident in her paintings, and through the strength of her vision and her dedication, she remains one of the great champions and innovators of her time, invaluable to us four centuries after her work first gripped audiences of the European Renaissance.