A Letter to Sofonisba Anguissola

Katy Hessel

Dearest Sofonisba,

I don’t know you. We’ll never meet. I live almost 500 years after you, in a world you wouldn’t recognize. I’m in my 20s; you lived until your 90s. You were a painter; I’m a writer. You communicated through images whereas I use words. But somehow I feel as though I know you. Perhaps it’s the self-portraits I’ve seen of yours—you at the easel and with your teacher; in your youth and in your 90s; your gaze meeting mine with those piercing glassy eyes and that strong-willed stance.

I wish we could have met, Sofonisba. I have so many questions for you: Why art? Why portraiture? What were the 1500s like, specifically as a woman? What opportunities did you have? Was it difficult? You were so successful and the work you left behind makes it look like you were confident. I see it in your elegant miniature Self-Portrait (about 1556), where you hold a medallion inscribed: “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted by her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona.” Where did that come from—that drive—and how did you put yourself out there? I know your father was supportive. He even sent your pictures to Michelangelo! Were you an anomaly or were there lots of other women like you, of all different professions and artistic pursuits?

An oval painting on parchment, framed by silver, of the artist Sofonisba Anguissola holding a large shield.
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, about 1556. Possibly oil on parchment. Charles Potter Kling Fund and Beth Munroe Fund—Bequest of Emma F. Munroe.

You’ve interested and inspired me for a long time. I was 19 years old, studying art history at university, when I first saw your Self-Portrait at the Easel (1556). I was struck by your relaxed but powerful posture with beautifully coiled ruffs, your neatly plaited hair, your delicate application of paint to your Mother and Child, your tools all laid out.

You may find this peculiar, but you were the first woman artist working before 1900 I learned about. I didn’t know women could even be artists in your time. I’m sad and ashamed to say that, but it’s the bitter reality. I will always wonder: Was it a conscious decision to write women out of history, or was it ignorance? What it was like for you, in your lifetime?

You were such a trailblazer, Sofonisba, but in the centuries after you, progress has been slow. Women couldn’t study the live nude form until the late 1800s. Even today just one percent of London’s National Gallery is made up of art by women. But that’s also why I’d like to have spoken with you; I want your first-hand account of the time.

The closest glimpse I’ve had is from your interaction with the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, when he painted you at 96 years old. He recalled you had “a very sharp memory and mind.… She gave me several pieces of advice: not to raise the light too high, so that the shadows in the wrinkles of old age would not grow too large.” You sounded very astute. I would love advice from you, to hear your take on painting, and perhaps even show you my book—you’re in it! In recent years, in the 2010s and 2020s, there have been more exhibitions of your work than ever.

But you always knew things would improve. You were ahead of your time—capturing in your work the intellectualism and inherent capabilities of women. You left a message of hope for all the women who lived in the hundreds of years between you and me. One of my favorite paintings of yours is The Chess Game (about 1555), in which three of your sisters are engaged in a game of chess, set against a dramatic landscape with your maid in the background. It’s not just because I’m one of many sisters, like you were, and it reminds me of laughing, talking, and playing games with them; but because of the way you show off their intellect and conversation. You show them as subjects, not objects; as people, not idealized.

I wish you could write back, Sofonisba. We’d have so much to talk about.


See Sofonisba Anguissola’s miniature Self-Portrait and explore the lives and experiences of her female contemporaries in “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy,” on view through January 14, 2024.


Katy Hessel is an art historian, broadcaster, curator, and author of The Story of Art without Men (Norton, 2023), a Sunday Times and New York Times Bestseller and winner of Waterstones Book of the Year 2022. Katy runs the @thegreatwomenartists Instagram account, hosts The Great Women Artists podcast, is a columnist for the Guardian, and is a visiting fellow at Cambridge University.