The power of a portrait’s gaze…and the power of an artist

If I were to try to explain my relationship with my father, I would have to fall back on that useful and time-honored Facebook status phrase, “It’s complicated.”

To his everlasting credit, however, at approximately the mid-1950s time period represented above, my father took it into his head to expose me to fine art. My parents had bought a series of small books on specific artists, a set like others of the 1950s and 1960s available monthly in grocery stores for a quarter or so. My father trained me, at approximately 18-24 months of age, to recognize the artist from the piece on the cover of the book. I would be trotted out at cocktail parties, family legend goes, to demonstrate my precocious virtuosity. “That’s Mr. Utrillo!” I would chirp, pointing at one book cover. “And that’s Mr. Rubens!”

Like most parlor tricks, this one had limited utility in the rest of my life, although it did give me some extra points in my college humanities classes. But the value and delight of this rather unorthodox early training has meant that I have been endlessly seduced by art and art museums of all shapes and sizes around the world. Sometimes I have enjoyed Renaissance paintings, sometimes 20th century suprematism, sometimes American impressionism, whatever. But lately, I’ve become enraptured by….portrait painting.

“Huh,” you say to yourself. “Portrait painting. Um, gosh, that sounds….ah……er…… fascinating.” I know, I know, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I can understand your impulse just at this moment to click out of my blog and get on with something more….dynamic…if you will. But please give me a chance to plead my case on this one.

A couple years back, in the “before” times when we could travel to places and explore venues more interesting than the grocery store and the post office, T and I went to Madrid for the annual big pen show there. We left ourselves an extra day at the end of our stay for some final business and a bit of sight-seeing, since pen shows normally mean one is locked in a ballroom for ten to twelve hours a day. I had plans to drag T off to a couple of the smaller, less famous art museums since 1.) they were close to our hotel and 2.) I had hoped the crowds would be smaller, which they were. We were walking through the first one, the lovely Museo Lazaro Galdiano, when I stopped dead in my tracks in front of this work:

The title of this piece is “Retrato de dama joven,” “Portrait of a young lady,” 1560, by (officially attributed to) Sofonisba Anguissola, c. 1532-1625. Interesting details to unpack in a moment, but first, the look on the subject’s face:

Forgive me my projections, but that is…grief. Or at least, tremendous sadness, anguish, resignation, and still, underneath, duty, grit, resolution. Or at least, that’s what I see. I was instantly haunted by this picture, and went home to research it, of course.

No-one seems to know who this person is, except that she was a noblewoman in the court of Phillip II of Spain, the location where the artist was working (more about that in a moment). The descriptions I found only spoke to her “serene expression,” her dress and ornate embroidery, the detail in the ruff, the jewels in her hair. She’s holding gloves, perhaps an indication of outside wear. But, IMHO, this girl is hurting, and I wanted to know more.

1560 Spain.

Phillip (Felipe) II was the most powerful ruler Spain ever had, by some accounts, and his 42-year imperial rule, his Golden Age, spanned large swatches of Europe and the discovery of much of the Americas as well as the Philippines. When he actually inherited Spain in 1556, he and his wife became “Philip and Mary, by the grace of God, King and Queen of England, Spain, France, both the Sicilies, Jerusalem and Ireland, Defenders of the Faith, Archdukes of Austria, Dukes of Burgundy, Milan and Brabant, Counts of Habsburg, Flanders and Tyrol.” Not a bad bit of real estate. But what that meant of course, was wars, wars, wars, wars, and then of course, more wars, against just about everybody just about everywhere, including a brutal set of navy battles against the Ottomans in which thousands of Spanish sailors were lost. The Battle of Djerba (near Tunisia) in May of 1560 was one of these.

My based-on-absolutely-nothing intuitive sense is that the young lady’s true love was lost at sea or in battle or something along those lines…and that this painting, her engagement portrait as I am guessing it is, shows both her wounded heart and the knowledge that she must go forward with a different marital outcome, shall we say, than the one she had hoped for, dreamed of, just a short time ago.

But who was the artist who could capture this look, this feeling, this beauty and this pain that arrested me across 460 years? Ah, here the story gets…even better.

This one could, and she did:

Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556 Although she painted women in glorious colors, the artist herself wore a modest and virtuous black.

Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy, then a Spanish dominion, to a noble family of modest means in 1632. She was the eldest of six sisters and one brother, all of whom were educated to a high standard by parents who believed in the values of “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione.

By the artist. A family portrait group with her father, Amilcare, sister Minerva, and brother Asdrubale, circa 1559.

Her artistic talent, and those of her siblings, was nourished and supported by her family, extremely unusual in the day. This resulted in training with Michelangelo in Rome for two years and a resulting invitation to paint the Duke of Alba in Milan. He in turn recommended her to King Phillip and in 1559 Sofonisba became officially a court painter and a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Elisabeth of Valois (the Mary mentioned above had died, apparently).

Sofonisba spent 14 years in residence with the royal Spanish court, guiding the artistic development of the ladies in residence in addition to painting dozens of portraits of the extended family, many of which were destroyed in a 17th century court fire. At the age of 40, due to the death of her patron, Sofonisba accepted an arranged marriage with a Sicilian nobleman and left Spain forever. After her first husband died, she fell in love with a much younger Genoese nobleman, Orazio Lomellino. They married and lived apparently very happily together until her death in 1625.

A portrait by Anthony van Dyck, 1624, who credited her with much useful artist guidance

According to Wiki, “Anguissola’s adoring second husband, who described her as small of frame, yet “great among mortals,” buried her with honor in Palermo.Seven years later, on the anniversary of what would have been her 100th birthday, her husband placed an inscription on her tomb that read in part:

To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.

Fathers and daughters, lovers lost and found, the waxing and waning of empire, women known and unknown who have danced across the planet – all manner of delights await us when we spend a moment with art and then dig for the deeper meaning. In this time of lives lost and found, months of trial and isolation, I try to reach to the possible and the positive, to find meaning in the present through the exploration of the past. Thanks for coming on this journey with me today.

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13 Responses to The power of a portrait’s gaze…and the power of an artist

  1. Susan Mcclanahan says:

    ❤ “arrested me across 350 years” Thank you 😘

  2. Kim Sosin says:

    Magnificent. One of the best blogs I’ve ever read. We learned more about you and about so much more! Thank you.

  3. That essay would have earned an A in an art history class. Thanks for doing the research and sharing it!

  4. Thanks for doing the research and sharing it. Art tells us so much about the environment in which it was created.

  5. Erin says:

    This is an incredible story. I often love (at least pre-P) to watch people and imagine their current feelings and what brought them to that point in their life. You have done an outstanding job of entertaining that imaginary story juxtaposed against the reality of that time and space. Thank you for taking us on this journey with you.

  6. janeinreno says:

    I am looking at the family portrait and wondering about the dog. I wondered how the artist got everyone and the dog to sit still for the painting. Do you think it was a sketch first that the artist worked off? Beautiful, rich portraits–someday when I can venture into the art museum here, I will have a more discerning eye for portraits. Thank you!

    • arleebug54 says:

      I know, I always love the dogs. I think the artist made a bunch of sketches and studies about the dog and then decided which one made the most sense in the final portrait. Good luck on keeping any Fido calm and quiet that long!

  7. Bettina Gabbe says:

    Dearest Carla,

    what a thrilling discovery! Nowadays you hear of women as painters just because they were amongst the few women to paint, but this one is extremely interesting, as story and as painter. Thank you for having me introduced to her work.

    After months of closure I finally go to musuems again, two days ago to have an interview in the Keats-Shelley-House near the Spanish Steps, because I had to write about Keats, who died in Rome 200 years ago. That is among the interesting topics I am writing about, since the government-chaos does not rise a lot of interest in German newspapers.

    The other day the people from Nabu called and said that in the end they had taken another canidate. That means that I was in the inner circle of candidates until a very late stage of the process. And that alone, apart from the fact that I enjoyed the intervew, is a good sign.

    Hope to see you soon, at least my father, his wife and my aunt in Hamburg have had already the second injection, now that they are vaccinated, the time to travel again to Germany is approaching!

    Very big hugs


  8. racheldee23 says:

    I can build a whole website and set up e-commerce, but I cannot get Gravatar to work. I’m okay with that. Here’s my comment:

    Thank you for taking us back in time with you and sharing your impressions of this piece. I loved “…endlessly seduced by art and art museums of all shapes and sizes around the world”.

    XOXOXO love you so big!

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