Sophonisba’s game of chess

October 9, 2020 0 Comments

Not before time, the seventeenth century painter Artemisia Gentileschi is now receiving just acclaim, in response to the National Gallery’s new exhibition in London (alas, out of bounds for those of us who are locked down).  Even if her ultra-violent ‘Texas chain-saw massacre’ dramas are too much for you, you can always admire her picture of herself at work on a canvas, one of the most striking artist self-portraits ever painted.  Artemisia is sometimes regarded as the first woman artist of real stature in European painting, but there were others before the Baroque.  One of the most interesting and influential is another Italian, Sophonisba Angouissola (1532-1625).  And one of her most intriguing and unusual pictures is the one called The chess game, painted in 1555 and now in the Muzeum Narodowe in Poznań, Poland.

Sophonisba Angouissola, The chess game (1555) (Muzeum Narodowe, Poznań)

Sophonisba was born in Cremona, the oldest of seven children, six of them girls, to Bianca Ponzone and Amilcare Angouissola.  The family belonged to the minor nobility, but was not specially well off.  They lived near the site of the battle of the Trebia, where the Carthaginians heavily defeated the Romans.  This explains the Carthaginian forenames: the original Hamilcar Barca was the father of the general Hannibal, while Sophonisba was a powerful and cultured politician in Carthage, who poisoned herself rather than surrender to the Romans at the end of the Second Punic War.

Sophonisba Angouissola,
Bernadino Campi painting Sophonisba Angouissola (1559)
(Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena)

Unusually, Amilcare provided Sophonisba and her sister Elena with a rounded education, and apprenticed them to a succession of local painters, beginning with Bernadino Campi.  Sophonisba’s (probable) first painting, made around 1550, is a remarkable double portrait, Berandino Campi painting Sophonisba Angouissola – the painter painted by her teacher.

Later Sophonisba moved to Rome, and received help and encouragement from Michelangelo, though as a woman she had no access to life study and other facilities open to male artists.  As a result, she specialised in portraits (and self-portraits).  This may have affected her later reputation in the eyes of critics who valued more ‘masculine’ forms of art.  In a recent article Caroline Campbell writes

Sofonisba made more images of herself than any other artist in the century between Dürer and Rembrandt.  These paintings are among the very first examples of an artist systematically portraying themselves and using the images as calling cards.  There is nothing flashy about them: most are small works and she depicts herself with extreme humility. She almost invariably wears simple (but expensive) black, although entitled, as a young unmarried noblewoman, to dress in rich embroidered fabrics. She doesn’t avert her eyes, however, but meets our inquiry as an equal.

Anthony van Dyck, Sophonisba Angouissola (1624)

Sophonisba’s reputation spread, so that in 1559 Philip II of Spain (and ruler of Milan) invited her to Madrid as lady-in-waiting to his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois.  She stayed there for fourteen years, until she married, at the age of forty, and moved to Sicily.  When her first husband died she married a second, Orazio Lomellino, and lived in Genoa for most of the rest of her long life.  Anthony van Dyck visited and sketched her in 1624 when she was in her nineties, and was impressed by her vitality. When she died Orazio set up a memorial to her in Genoa, and on the hundredth anniversary of her birth added an inscription: ‘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’.

Sophonisba Angouissola,
Portrait of Bianca Ponzoni Angouissola (1557)
(Gemäldgalerie, Berlin)

It is mostly her earlier works painted in Italy and a few in Spain that have survived.  Many of these feature members of Sophonisba’s own family, and The chess game shows three of her sisters, Lucia, Minerva and Europa, and a family maid.  The art critic and historian Giorgio Vasari visited the family house in Cremona and saw the painting.  He wrote, ‘I saw this year in Cremona, in her father’s house, a painting made with much care: a picture of his three daughters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, done with such care and skill that they look alive: the only thing missing is speech’. 

Lucia, on the left, is making a move (taking a queen?) against her sister-opponent, Minerva, watched by the youngest of the three, Europa.  Minerva holds up her right hand, perhaps in surprise at Lucia’s unexpected move, or maybe in silent submission, and Europa smiles at her reaction.  In the painting’s Latin inscription the fourth figure is just labelled ‘ancilla’ (maid).  Unlike the girls, dressed in their finest clothes and jewellery, she is completely plain.  Behind the figures is an oak tree in leaf, and beyond that, in sfumato, a distant hilly landscape with river or lake.

Sophonisba Angouissola,
Self-portrait at the easel, painting a devotional panel
(1556) (Łańcut Castle Museum, Poland)

There’s a strong element of archaic formality to the picture.  The costumes are meticulously detailed and the poses quite stiff.  The background, too, harks back to an earlier style of painting.  And yet the faces, or at least two of them, are plastic and expressive.  Lucia’s is skilfully moulded and rounded, with just a faint trace of a victorious smile.  She turns it to face the artist/viewer, as if for acknowledgement of her skill.  Minerva gazes at her elder sister in admiration, though without expression.  (Her face is whiter and less sculptural: has the painting been retouched at this point?)  Europa, the youngest, is more open in her pleasure at the outcome, her smile less guarded.  Each figure individually reminds you of the portraits of Hans Holbein, real people trapped in unreal, formal clothes.  But these are no public figures, just a small family group.  It might be called a ‘conversation piece’, but there’s not a word being exchanged: it’s a very quiet event, quietly described.  Also, the label ‘conversation piece’ carries a suggestion of triviality, and I’m not sure this painting is trivial.  Michael Cole has suggested ‘friendship portrait’ would be nearer the mark.

Sophonisba Angouissola,
Self-portrait (c1556)
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It’s interesting to imagine the picture without the maid.  She’s an outsider: plainer, almost puritan, and of course much older.  She too says nothing.  Her gaze is directed to the board.  Is she the symbol of wisdom among these innocents?  Or of mortality, a reminder that the freshness, brilliance and innocence of youth will soon fade?  Or is she just tired out by the endless drudgery of having to look after seven children?

What about the chess game?  Fighting in the sixteenth century – and in all centuries – was a man’s activity, and so was its proxy, chess – a fiercely intellectual pursuit only publicly acknowledged as suitable for girls and women in the last fifty years.  Yet here we have three girls – symbolic Amazons – absorbed in a game of chess.  Could this painting, tranquil and reticent as it is, be a feminist manifesto, an assertion that woman have just as much capacity, and right, to engage in activities conventionally regarded as the exclusive province of men?

Sophonisba Angouissola, Self-portrait (1610)
(Gottfried Keller-Stiftung)

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