The Museo del Prado‘s latest exhibition titled The Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana highlights two of the greatest female Renaissance artists that have slipped into obscurity in art history. For centuries, their artworks have been credited to male artists such as Titian, El Greco, and Carracci, and no one has bothered to do the research that set the record straight, until now. Thanks to painstaking research done by a small group consisting of mainly American feminist art historians, these 16th century Italian artists can finally begin to reclaim their reputations.

Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (1577). Courtesy Accademia Nazionale di San Luca.

The Director of the Prado museum, Miguel Falomir, acknowledges the lack of works by female artists in the museum’s collections, and assures the community that the institution is “making an effort to right.” The museum holds only four paintings by Anguissola in its collection, and none by Fontana.

Family Portrait, Sofonisba Anguissola, Oil on canvas, c. 1558, Niva (Denmark), The Nivaagaard Collection.

The minute amount of paintings the museum holds is a shock to most, considering Anguissola was a member of the Spanish Hapsburg court in Madrid and painted a great many portraits of the royal family. Leticia Ruiz is the show’s curator and acknowledges the pioneer feminist scholars such as Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris who laid the foundation for the exhibition. She also notes and credits the research by Marie Kusche, who argued that the painting titled Lady in Fur Wrap, long thought to be an El Greco, is actually a painting by Anguissola. Although it has not been proven right, the Spanish court painter Alonso Sanchez Coello also names her as the potential author. But even so, many of her royal portraits have been attributed to male artists partly because she didn’t sign them, and partly because court records are a bit patchy. But one cannot overlook the bias of male art historians, who did their best to obscure the achievements of female artists.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Queen Anna of Austria (1573). Courtesy of the Museo Nacional del Prado.

Another painting that has been lost in translation to male bias was that of the portrait Juana of Austria and a Young Girl (1561), which for decades was credited to Titian, then later to Sanchez Coello. Marie Kusche, however, detected the hand of Anguissola, and now the consensus is that it was indeed done by her, but completed in Sanchez Coello’s workshop.

Noli me tangere, Lavinia Fontana, Oil on canvas, 1581, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria delle statue e delle pitture

Susan Fisher Sterling, the Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, also credits the women responsible for bringing these two long forgotten female artists to light. In 1993, the NMWA organized an Anguissola show, and five years later, a Fontana show. All thanks to pioneer feminist scholars such as Linda Nochlin, Ann Sutherland Harris, and Eleanor Tuft, as well as the founder of the NMWA, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, for paving the way. According to Fisher Sterling, they were the first to “pull these artists out of the trash can of history and put them on the wall of the museums.”

Lavinia Fontana, Judith and Holofernes (around 1595). Courtesy of the Fondazione di culto e religione Ritiro San Pellegrin.

The exhibition features 56 paintings from more than 20 European and American collections, including Boston’s Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, which rarely lends from their collection to other museums. It is considered to be one of the most high-profile exhibitions doing its best to rewrite the male-dominated canon, and only the second show devoted to female artists in the museum’s history.

A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana” is on view from October 22 through February 2, 2020, at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Click HERE for more details of the exhibition.


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