Portrait of Elizabeth of Valois by Sofonisba Anguissola.
Elizabeth of Valois (1545 to 1568) was the eldest daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici. She was described as timid but close to her formidable mother.
Elisabeth was married by proxy to Phillip II of Spain at age 14, as part of the peace treaty that ended the Habsburg–Valois War. Phillip II was more than twice her age and already had been married twice.
One can imagine how thrilled this young girl was to be handed off as war booty. But it turns out that Phillip II wasn’t a bad husband. He was apparently charmed by his bride and within a short period of time had given up his mistress. His sensitivity can be seen in his choices of ladies-in-waiting. These included the aristocrat Ana de Mendoza and the painter Sofonisba Anguissola.
Unattributed portrait of Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Éboli, showing her very rakish eye-patch.
Ana de Mendoza was distinguished by her intelligence and her eye-patch; legend says she lost her eye to an épée. She herself had been married at the age of 12 (but did not bear her husband children until she was eighteen). She lived in Elizabeth of Valois’ household until the young queen’s death in childbirth.
Her later career gives some hint of her character. After bearing her husband ten children, she entered a convent upon his death. Three years later she returned to public life, getting herself involved in treason. She died after thirteen years of imprisonment.
Unlike many women painters, Sofonisba Anguissola was not the daughter of an artist; in fact, she was from a noble family. Her father encouraged his daughters to cultivate their talents. Four of them became painters and one a writer. At age twenty-two (and unmarried) Anguissola went to Rome, where she met Michelangelo, with whom she studied informally for several years.
Self-portrait at the easel, 1556, by Sofonisba Anguissola.
By age 26, Anguissola was established as a painter. In Milan, she painted the Duke of Alba, who in turn recommended her to Philip II. He invited her to join the Spanish Court.
Elizabeth of Valois was herself an interested amateur portraiturist, and part of Anguissola’s remit was to teach her painting. After Elizabeth’s death, Phillip II paid Anguissola a dowry of twelve thousand pounds upon her marriage to Don Francisco de Moncada. The couple settled in Palermo, where Don Francisco died in 1579.
Portrait of Massimiliano Stampa, 1557, by Sofonisba Anguissola.
At the age of forty-seven, Anguissola met and married the considerably younger captain of the ship on which she was traveling (Orazio Lomellino). Her amassed fortune allowed her to paint, teach, and mentor other artists through her long and exceptional life.
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