Women Artists

Masterpiece Story: The Game of Chess by Sofonisba Anguissola

Anna Ingram 25 January 2024 min Read

Sofonisba Anguissola is known for her self-portraits and portraits of Spanish royalty. But her most provocative painting is perhaps The Game of Chess, where her three sisters are portrayed in a typically masculine game. The work gained popularity during her lifetime, with documentation of Giorgio Vasari speaking well of it after a visit to her family home. But how is this Sofonisba’s piece different from any other Renaissance portraits of figures playing chess?

The Family Artist

Sofonisba Anguissola was born and raised in Cremona, Italy, during the 16th century. She eventually became known as one of the first female portrait painters in Europe. Born into a noble family, one would think she would have had access to more opportunities to become a painter. This might be true, but her family was poor, and as a female restricted to society, she had no access to models. So she painted about her family as one of six sisters and one brother. Three of her sisters appear in her painting, The Game of Chess.

The Game of Chess engaged the viewer in an activity that reflected social reality and the gender imbalance it entailed as much as it captured the bonds between family members. That is, as the title suggests, the game of chess itself. As a popular game, chess was rarely associated with women, even in the field of portraits.

Sofonisba Anguissola game of chess: Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

Chess in the Sixteenth Century

During the Italian Renaissance, chess was a masculine game. Men were portrayed alongside it to display their skill in combat. It was a game for educated noblemen to play in place of gambling. The game also gathered a following because it required players to study the rules and tactics rather than rely on chance.

Some of the few 16th-century portraits about chess-playing women cast them as timid players. These women were always accompanied by a man or playing against a man. None of them were deemed confident or successful. For example, Giulio Campi’s painting from 1530 titled The Chess Game has a woman looking away from the chessboard.

But everything changed when Sofonisba Angusissola depicted her sisters playing the intellectual chess game.

Sofonisba Anguissola game of chess: Giulio Campi, The Chess Game, 1530, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Giulio Campi, The Chess Game, 1530, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

A Strategic Game

Featured in the portrait are Lucia, Minerva, and Europa Anguissola. Recognized on the left, Lucia is the only figure looking directly at the viewer. In her left hand, she holds the queen, clearly winning the game. Minerva, her younger sister, sits across from her with her hand raised and her mouth slightly open as if she is about to ask a question. Finally, Europa, the youngest of the three, is smiling with her eyes on Minerva. All three sisters are at different skill points in chess, each learning from the other. Meanwhile, a fourth figure in the composition, the maid, is in the far right corner overseeing the game.

Sofonisba has portrayed her sisters as educated and tactical women—they chose to collaborate in a game of chess when they could have competed against each other. The dynamic within and beyond the canvas compose a masterpiece reassessing the social norms of women at the time. As the artist, Sofonisba made her presence known by including her signature on the side of the chessboard, with a choice statement indicating she painted this scene from life. As inscribed on the board in Latin, the term “ex vera” translates to “from the truth.” The phrase could suggest that she painted the scene from life or from her mind. But either way, this portrait is meant to be taken literally, not figuratively.

Sofonisba Anguissola game of chess: Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

I have seen this year in Cremona, in the house of her father, a painting made with much diligence, the depiction of his three daughters in the act of playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, done with such diligence and facility, that they appear alive, and the only thing missing is speech.

Giorgio Vasari

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, second edition, 1558.

Sofonisba Anguissola game of chess: Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland. Detail.

A Powerful Message

Sofonisba has included a range of details in the painting to represent her family’s social status. The sisters are wearing rich brocade dresses and elaborate pearls in their jewelry. The artist also strategically uses textiles to incorporate wealth, such as the Turkish carpet table. Even the outdoor setting symbolizes a humanist education which mimics medieval paintings.

However, the multilayered meanings conveyed through the sisters’ interactions with each other have made it clear that this masterpiece by Sofonisba Anguissola is not merely a showcase of her family’s wealth. The clothing and jewelry are but real-life settings that embellish their female subjects and bring attention to their capability to turn a combatant, male-dominated game such as chess into something equitable and enjoyable.

Bibliography

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