Sofonisba Anguissola
(Cremona c. 1532 – Palermo 1625)


Portrait of an unknown noblewoman, lady-in-waiting to isabel de Valois, queen of Spain (1545-1568)


oil on canvas
181.5 x 98.5 cm. (71.4 x 38.8 in.)
c. 1560 – 1565

“Sofonisba of Cremona […] worked with deeper study and greater grace than any woman of our times at problems of design, for not only has she learned to draw, paint, and copy from nature, and reproduce most skilfully works by other artists, but she has on her own painted some most rare and beautiful paintings.”

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Florence, 1568, p. 36.

Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the first known female artists to establish an international reputation. She was born in Cremona around 1632 as the oldest of seven children in a noble family. Unusual for a woman at the time, Sofonisba received alongside her sisters a well-rounded education. Setting a precedent for future women wishing to study art, she began her artistic training with local painters at the age of fourteen, first with Bernardino Campi (1522-1591) and then with Bernardino Gatti (c.1495-1576). It soon became apparent that her developing artistic abilities were exceptional.


Early on in her studies, her talent was recognised by Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who described her “most rare and beautiful paintings” in Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550).1 It was not long before she received commissions from the nobility and the Spanish King Philip II (1527-1598), who invited Anguissola in 1559 to join the Spanish court as a lady-in-waiting and painting tutor to Queen Isabel de Valois (1545-1568).2 It was during this period that she painted this Portrait of an Unknown Noblewoman, in which Sofonisba has adopted a more formal style suitable for a portrait for the Spanish court.3


The attribution of this portrait to Sofonisba Anguissola has been confirmed by Mina Gregori and Amparo Serrano de Haro, who agree that the style, execution and construction of this portrait demonstrate convincing analogies with the work of Anguissola.4 After her time at the Spanish court, Anguissola worked and lived in Palermo, and afterwards Genoa, where she continued an established career as a leading portraitist. After her eyesight deteriorated, she moved back to Palermo, where she received a visit by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) in 1624, on which occasion he painted her portrait.5 She died a year later in 1625 at the age of 93.


1. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Florence, 1568), p. 36.
2. Kathleen Kuiper, “Sofonisba Anguissola,” accessed June 19, 2020,
3. Michael W. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson. A Renaissance Artist and her Work (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019), 140.
4. Mina Gregori, in private correspondence, 2013, and Amparo Serrano de Haro, in private correspondence, 2013.
5. Kuiper, “Sofonisba Anguissola.”


Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Prince of France (1763-1839), Palazzo Falconieri, Rome;
Likely his sale; Galerie de Feu, S.E. Le Cardinal Fesch, Ancien Archevêque de Lyon, Primat des Gaules, George, Rome, 17-18 & 24 March 1844;
Sir Rev. Walter Bromley-Davenport (1787-1863);
his sale; 12-13 June 1863, lot 132 (as “Sir Antonio More”, “Portrait of Mary of Austria, fourth wife of Philip II”, as “From the Fesch Collection”) either unsold or bought back by the family;
Sir William Bromley-Davenport, K.C.B. (1862-1949);
his sale; Christie’s, London, 28 July 1926, lot 146 (as “Sir Antonio Moro”, “Portrait of Mary of Austria, fourth wife of Philip II, in white satin dress embroidered with gold braid and red flowers”, as “from the collection of Cardinal Fesch”) bought for £25.2s by Tyndale;
Francis Howard (1874-1954); his deceased sale; Christie’s, London, 25 November 1955, lot 75 (as “Fontana”, “Portrait of Mary of Austria, fourth wife of Philip II, in white satin dress, gloves in her right hand”) bought for £115.10s by Leggatt Bros., London;
Private European collection;
Private collection, France, until 2012;
The Klesch Collection.

New discovery.
São Paulo, MASP, “Women’s Histories: Artists Before 1900”, 23 August – 17 November 2019.

New discovery.
Leme, Mariana; Pedrosa, Adriano; Rjeille, Isabelle, eds., Women’s Histories, Feminist Histories, São Paulo: MASP, 2019, p. 50-53, fig. 6.

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