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.
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:
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.
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.
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.