Renaissance Women

The Renaissance art period rose with its distinct style of painting, sculpture and decorative arts in Italy, 1400 marking Europe’s transition into the Early Modern Age. During this rebirth; philosophy, literature, sciences, architecture, theology and politics saw revival and innovation; in heavy contrast to the bygone medieval and dark age. Characteristic developments could be observed in the approach to literature and the fine arts. Unlike the bygone era, art was created with more vibrant themes and colors, philosophy looked beyond the church, an interest in both history and progress the brought studies of archeology, early medicine and mathematics. Individual education became an important achievement, allowing the rise in printing presses, writers, and printmakers.

Befitting the theme of the age, women began to aspire to and set precedents in being allowed to walk and work among men, albeit these women were usually wealthy. Notably, Isabella d’Este was said to be the strongest, most intelligent woman of the Renaissance period. She mastered Geek and Latin, demonstrating her skills in dancing, acting and playing instruments in public performances. After marrying into the Mantuan royalty, she used her position and exerted great influence over the Mantua court. After her husband was captured in battle, she ruled Mantua herself, influencing the economic development of the region. Becoming a patron of the arts, she collected many paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and instruments, encouraging local artists even in the field of textiles. Isabella’s life exemplified that a woman, in any era needed no man’s approval to live the life she desired. She broke down the barriers to power and influence by virtue of her own independent spirit strength and talent.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)

Born in Cremona (Lombardy, Italy), Sofonisba received a well-rounded education that included fine arts. Her life and work granted her many travels. As a young woman, she went to Rome where her talent was recognized by Michelangelo, in Milan she painted the Duke of Alba, and in 1559 she was recruited to go to Madrid as the tutor and lady-in-waiting to the Spanish queen Elizabeth of Valois. She later became painter to King Phillip II and after the death of the queen she married and moved to Sicily, Pisa and Genoa practicing her art until the age of 93.

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Her most distinctive work were portraits of herself and her family. She adapted her art to her subjects, first painting in the Campi style in which she was trained and later adapting the formal requirements for the Spanish court. Sofonisba’s work was reminiscent of the worldly tradition of Cremona, a culmination of elements of shadowy melancholic figures of Correggio and her personal penchant for fine detailing. Her oeuvre brought a lasting influence on subsequent generation of artists. Her portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Valois with a zibellino (the pelt of a marten set with a head and feet of jeweled gold) was widely copied by many of the finest artists of the time, such as Peter Paul Rubens.

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At the time, Sofonisba’s social class did not allow her to transcend the constraint of being a woman. Although her apprenticeship set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art, there was no possibility of her studying anatomy of drawing from life as it was unacceptable for a lady to view nudes. Still encouraged, she experimented with styles of portraiture, setting subjects informally. Painted when she was 23 years old, The Chess Game is an intimate representation of an everyday family scene, combining elaborate formal clothing with very informal facial expressions, which was unusual for Italian art at this time. Her depiction of herself as an artist in the 1561 self-portrait was a personal form of rebelling the notion of women being objects, in essence an instrument to be played by men – here, she portrayed herself as ‘playing’ the instrument, taking on a different role.

The Chess Game, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana was regarded as the first woman artist working within the ranks of her male counterparts, outside a court or convent. She was also the first woman artist to paint nudes and was the breadwinner of a family of 13. As the student and daughter of Prospero Fontana, a prominent painter of the School of Bologna, her art style involved many religious depictions, and gained patronage of Pope Gregory XIII and Pope Paul V. Her work earned honors, one being a bronze portrait medallion cast by Felice Antonio Casoni – sculptor and architect in 1611. She was also elected a member of the Roman Academy, a rare honor for a woman.

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Lavinia’s form of art progressed from her work as she went on to paint in a variety of genres. Her style was youthful, adapting the bright quasi-Venetian coloring. Her work of portraits was often well detailed with the accessories and apparel of her subjects as she was most famous for painting upper-class residents of her native, Bologna. Her work reflected her trained style but later went on to exemplify Mannerism.

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As a woman among artists in her era, she witnessed some forms of limitations; being her sitters were often women, limiting her study of the male anatomy. Even while her portraits were lavishly paid for and avidly appreciated, they have been wrongly attributed to Guido Reni. Still, she prevailed as a first for her work in nudes, an aspiration among female artist and a highly regarded artist in the church of Pope Gregory XIII.

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Levina Teerlinc 1510–1520

Levina Teerlinc was a Flemish Renaissance miniaturist painter who later served as a court artist to Tudor monarchs; Henry, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Much of her work did not survive even while she was instrumental in the spread of the popularity of miniatures.

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There is documentation she created numerous portraits of Elizabeth I, may have trained Nicholas Hillard who went on to become the supreme miniature portraitist of the era. Her most notable work was a miniaturist portrait of Lady Katherine Gray and her son Lord Beauchamp, as the first known English secular image of mother and child, which was widely copied.

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Levina’s medium of choice were watercolors. She usually depicted the sitters facing the viewer. Faces were the most prominent part of the compositions and backgrounds were often blue as she the sitters were generally royals and their relatives. In one particular piece (portrait of Lady Katherine Gray) she depicts the sitter wearing a miniature with the likeness of her husband.

Diana Scultori, Diana Montovano, or Diana Ghisi (b.1535 AD)

Diana was an Italian engraver, known also for being one of the earliest print makers. Learning from her father, Diana received Papal Privilege (much similar to a modern day trademark) to make and market and protect her own work, using her signature to establish a name for her household. Her business acumen could be seen in her successful application for Papal Privilege, its use in protecting her engraving from imitation, and in the prints that promoted her husband’s architectural work.

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Diana’s work reflected both religious and secular themes. Another example of her secular work would be ‘Latona Giving Birth to Apollo and Diana on the Island of Delos’ depicting a scene from Ovid’s Metamorpohoses. Her prominent religious works include ‘Christ Making Peter Head of the Church’; a print depicting the moment when Christ appoints Peter as head of the church in the Gospel of Matthew. This was adapted into tapestries which were commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel, and later was taken to Rome to be published and printed in various editions.

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