Creating a National Collection #4 Sofonisba Anguissola

5 May 2021

Hello! My name is Giulia Calvi, I am a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, currently halfway through my master’s degree in Curating the Art Museum. I grew up in Northern Italy, in a small town on Lake Maggiore not too distant from the Swiss border, before moving to the UK to study Philosophy at King’s College London.

As part of my MA programme, we students have the opportunity to spend time working in a London museum. My placement has been at the National Gallery, where I’ve been shadowing Susanna Avery-Quash. She introduced me to the Creating a National Collection partnership project with Southampton City Art Gallery at our first meeting back in January, thinking I could benefit from helping with an exhibition in the making. I’ve been assisting Susanna and Jemma Craig, the Art Fund Curatorial Trainee leading on the project, with editing texts for the catalogue and exhibition.

The partnership between Southampton City Art Gallery and the National Gallery is a long and fruitful one, and as a result many acquisitions of national and importance have taken place. I was particularly struck by the presence of a number of significant paintings by female artists in the collection of different nationalities and dates.

I was especially surprised and delighted to learn that Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun was chosen not only for inclusion in the exhibition but also as the lead image. One of the first female artists to establish an international reputation, Anguissola was a late Renaissance painter from Cremona, a small town in Northern Italy near where I grew up.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun, oil on canvas. Image © Southampton Cultural Services.

Anguissola was such an exceptional painter that Giorgio Vasari included her in his celebrated biographies, The Lives of the Artists. Of her abilities, he wrote: ‘But Sofonisba of Cremona … has laboured at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time, and she has not only succeeded in drawing, colouring, and copying from nature, and in making excellent copies of works by other hands, but has also executed by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting.’

Throughout the years, many of Anguissola’s paintings were attributed to male artists because of their exceptional quality, and The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun was for many years believed to be by Titian for the same reason, despite an inscription on the back that reported Anguissola’s signature.

As one of the first women to achieve an international reputation, most Italian students come across Anguissola’s work during their high-school years; like many of them, I visited the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan, more than once as part of my art history curriculum, and I had the chance to see there two other works by Anguissola: her Self-Portrait and Pietà. Coincidentally, the latter was also attributed to a male artist for quite some time – in this case, Bernardino Campi, in whose studio Anguissola spent time as an apprentice.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1560-61. Oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.

The Artist’s Sister is the only painting by Anguissola owned by any UK public art collection and is a work of exceptional quality. The work was acquired by Southampton as a result of a new acquisition policy introduced in 1936 by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery and art adviser to Southampton City Art Gallery. Clark believed that Southampton should concentrate on developing its collections of notable old masters and nineteenth-century paintings. The recent rediscovery and interest in the lives of successful female artists such as Anguissola clearly shows the scope of Clark’s ambition, as well as the relevance of the National Gallery’s partnership with Southampton. I hope that Sofonisba will gain more name recognition for being our chosen ‘poster girl’!

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