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The Hidden women of art

Why is so little known about women artists in history? Sure, women were not trained to be artists, women were not encouraged to take up art as a profession and women were subjugated to the role of mother and homemaker. But despite this, there were many famous artists as early as the sixteenth century, however it seems they had poor publicity and few historians have made note of these women of art. We think it’s time to redress this issue and highlight three of the fabulous Italian Renaissance artists.

Sofonisba Auguissola – 1535 – 1625

Sofonisba was a child prodigy who studied art with her sister in Cremona. While her sister became a nun, Sofonisba became the first famous female painter of the Renaissance. Michelangelo sent drawings to her for her to reproduce in oil and send back for comments. She once sent him a gift of one of her drawings, Boy Pinched by Crayfish, which became so popular that other artists made copies of it and it’s been suggested that Caravaggio’s famous Boy Bitten By Lizard, was inspired by her work. Her Portrait of Spain’s King Philip II is in the National Portrait Gallery in London and her Portrait of Queen Isabella of Spain was commissioned by Pope Pius IV who wrote her a personal letter of thanks and commendation for her work.


Lavinia Fontana – 1552-1614

Lavinia was fortunate to live and work in Bologna, where women artists were numerous. Bologna celebrated educated women and its university was one of the few in the world to permit women as lecturers. Lavinia was taught by her father and became a specialist in painting portraits of wealthy families, due to her skills in painting details of fine clothing and jewellery. She was a favourite of Pope Gregory and then Clement the VIII who encouraged her to move her family to the Holy City, where she became famous; so famous that a portrait medal was cast in her honour.


Artemisia Gentileschi 1593 – 1652

Artemisia is considered by many art historians to be one of the greatest Italian women artists and her name appears in many popular art history books. When you look at her paintings it’s easy to see why – there is so much passion and depth to her work. Her passion may have been born from a traumatic experience as an art student when her father’s friend raped her. The case went to trial which included her being cross-examined under torture, and the man was found guilty and sent to jail for eight months. Not surprisingly, one of the recurring themes in Artemesia’s work is Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes. She worked prodigiously in Florence and Naples and was known as a key painter in the Neapolitan School of painting – second only to Caravaggio.


Note: the content from this article was obtained from a book titled Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tufts (1974) and purchased second hand. Copies are available on eBay but they are rare.


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