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10 incredible stories about famous women artists of the Renaissance and Baroque

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In the 16th century, the world of art belonged to men, but the fairer sex also left its bright mark in history. At some point, their names were on everyone’s lips, and admiring male artists accepted them to the Academies of Art, breaking their own rules. How did these ladies manage to become famous artists?
10 incredible stories about famous women artists of the Renaissance and Baroque
At the age of 20, this artist created her self-portrait — the first self-portrait in history, depicting the woman artist at work.

Levina Teerlinc (ca.1510-1576) – court artist of the Tudors

Levina Teerlinc was destined to become an artist. Her father and grandfather were Flemish miniaturists, who kept their own workshop in Ghent. Simon Bening dreamed of a son who would continue the family artistic tradition, and although the artist was married twice, he had six daughters. Being desperate, he began to train his eldest daughter, Levina, who soon cheered her father up with her incredible success. In the late 1530s, she was already a master of miniatures, known far beyond the borders of her native Bruges.
In 1545, Levina was invited to the court of Henry VIII, moved to London together with her husband, and became a court artist. The husband became part of the king’s personal guard, their family enjoyed prosperity and held a high position at court.

She was granted an annuity income of 40 pounds — more substantial than that of her predecessor, Hans Holbein himself, who received 33 pounds.

Levina worked for four Tudors: Henry VIII and his children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, but

Levina worked for four Tudors: Henry VIII and his children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, but her works are less known than the works of other court artists. She limited her output to portrait miniatures, which are personal mementos which weren’t formally displayed. Lovers exchanged such exquisite things and kept them in jewel-boxes or wore them around their necks, like jewellery hidden under their clothes. Miniatures also served as perfect diplomatic gifts, and could also signify political affiliation.

Teerlinc, Elizabeth I, 1560s

Levina Teerlinc made an incredibly successful career for a woman artist of the 16th century: besides a lot of portraits for the English royal family and court nobility, she was working on designs for seals and coins, created manuscript paintings and illustrations for books, and also designed clothes and jewellery.

Catharina van Hemessen (1527-1587)

Catharina van Hemessen wanted to become an artist, like her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, a prominent Mannerist painter in Antwerp. She could be trained only by her father, while the boys beginning from the age of 9−15 could easily find an artist to live with and learn from, spending five years with them.
Catharina became a master in the Guild of St. Luke and was the teacher of three male students.
Rich citizens often commissioned her to create portraits, which are distinguished by a realistic dep

Rich citizens often commissioned her to create portraits, which are distinguished by a realistic depiction and delicate manner of painting, while their softness and tenderness of execution give away the "woman's touch".

Catharina’s portraits found great favour with Maria of Austria, who served as regent of the Low Countries and later became the artist’s patron. When Maria moved back to Spain in 1556, the artist and her husband were invited to join her. Catharina was given a sizeable pension for life. After Maria’s death, Catharina and her husband returned to Antwerp.

Catharina van Hemessen Female Portrait, 1550s

  • Hemessen. Portrait of a Lady with a Dog, 1551
  • Hemessen. Portrait of a Man, 1552

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) – an artist of a noble background

Sofonisba Anguissola was born in the north of Italy in the city of Cremona and was the oldest of six daughters of aristocrat Amilcare Anguissola. The girls lost their mother quite early and their father, sharing the views of the humanist Baldassare Castiglione, ensured that the girls were educated in the fine arts: they studied Latin, took singing and drawing lessons.
The father ensured that his daughters receive a well-rounded education and encouraged them to cultiv

The father ensured that his daughters receive a well-rounded education and encouraged them to cultivate and perfect their talents. Four of his daughters became painters, but Elena abandoned painting to become a nun; both Anna Maria and Europa gave up art upon marrying, while Lucia, whose talent was acknowledged by Vasari, who saw her paintings, died at the age of 25. Amilcare’s only son — Asdrubale, studied music and Latin. Sofonisba became a professional artist.

S. Anguissola. Portrait of the Artist’s Family: Father Amilcare, Sister Minerva, and Brother Asdrubale, 1568

Sofonisba studied with local painter Bernardino Campi, continued her studies with Bernardino Gatti and later taught her younger siblings. As a grateful student, she captured herself and her teacher in a kind of self-portrait.
In 1554, Sofonisba travelled to Rome, where she was introduced to Michelangelo. At their first meeting, Buonarroti challenged the girl to draw a weeping boy, so Anguissola drew Boy Bitten by a Crayfish and sent it back to Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talent.
For several years, she was undergoing an informal study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
, receiving substantial guidance from Michelangelo: the artist sent her his drawings for copying and gave his recommendations after the assignments. Needless to say, Sofonisba was extremely happy!
During her trip to Milan in 1558, Sofonisba met the Duke of Alba and painted him. He in turn recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. His third wife, 14-year-old Elisabeth of Valois, was fond of drawing and Sofonisba was invited to the court to serve as a painting tutor and lady-in-waiting to the new queen.
A year later, the King offered Sofonisba to become a court painter, and Anguissola painted official portraits of the royal family and courtiers for the following twenty years.
She became good friends with the queen, and the king, apparently, also had a soft spot for the artis




She became good friends with the queen, and the king, apparently, also had a soft spot for the artist, and decided to help her: he found her a husband — Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, son of the Prince of Paternò, Viceroy of Sicily and paid a dowry of 12,000 scudi for the marriage!

Anguissola, Portrait of Philip II of Spain, 1565

  • Anguissola. Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese, 1560s
  • Anguissola. Portrait of a Young Lady, 1560
After the death of her husband, Sofonisba married for the second time at the age of 47 — she chose a captain of the ship on which she travelled to Genoa. They say it was love at first sight. The couple settled in the big house of Sofonisba’s husband, where the artist had her own workshop. The successful trading of her husband and the generous pension from King Philip II allowed them to have a good life; moreover, the painter’s husband thought the world of her.
Sofonisba lived to be 93 years and continued working almost until the last years of her life. Other

Sofonisba lived to be 93 years and continued working almost until the last years of her life. Other artists often visited her, and her experience cleared the way for the next generation of artists.
In 1624, Anguissola was visited by the young Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. He claimed that their conversation taught him more about the "true principles" of painting than anything else in his life. Van Dyck drew Sofonisba’s portrait while visiting her.

Anthony van Dyck. Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of the School of Bologna painter Prospero Fontana, who trained her in painting. She became the first woman artist who worked in all genres that her male colleagues worked in.

She worked with portraiture as well as with religious and mythological scenes, and was also the first woman to paint nudes.

  • Fontana Portrait of a Lady with a Dog
  • Fontana Minerva Dressing, 1613
Lavinia was a brave and determined girl, just look at her early self-portrait. It was created on the occasion of her marriage and was intended for the future father-in-law, Count Zappi of Imola.
In the painting, Lavinia tells about herself, emphasizing her advantages to the family of the groom,

In the painting, Lavinia tells about herself, emphasizing her advantages to the family of the groom, who held a higher position. She portrayed herself playing the clavichord, painted an easel in the background near the window, signed the painting in Latin — all these details had to demonstrate the girl’s education, while the maidservant indicated prosperity. A rich red dress reminds of the upcoming wedding — in Bologna, girls traditionally walked up the isle in a red dress.
Fontana, Self-Portrait, 1577

It seems that the count liked his daughter-in-law — Lavinia got married and gave birth to 11 children. She continued to work, her husband took care of the household and helped his wife, it is known that he sometimes painted minor elements of her paintings like draperies.
Lavinia worked in Rome at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII and was elected into the Accademia di San Luca of Rome.
Lavinia Fontana. Worship of the Theotokos
Worship of the Theotokos
XVI century, 281×185.4 cm
Another sign of the recognition of the artist’s talent was a commission to create a self-portrait from Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón: he intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected Italian scholars, artists, and statesmen. Lavinia was flattered by the offer and painted herself as a noble lady wearing a luxurious dress and jewellery while working at a desk, surrounded by classical sculptures. But the book of engravings was never published.

Fede Galizia (1578-1630) – the first in the genre of still life

By the age of twelve, this girl was sufficiently accomplished as an artist to be mentioned by art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo. Fede Galizia was a daughter and a student of Nunzio Galizia, a painter of miniatures, who also became a painter. Taught by her father, Fede had a great eye for detail and her skill at painting clothing and jewellery made her a very popular portrait artist.
In her work Portrait of Paulo Morigia, Fede paid a tribute to her father, who painted miniatures, and skilfully depicted Morigia’s glasses: lenses' reflection shows the room Morigia is sitting in.
Fede Galicia. Paolo Morigia
Paolo Morigia
1590-th , 79×88 cm
Fede was the first woman artist who got into still life painting. 63 works have been catalogued as hers, of which 44 are still lifes, and her style influenced the further development of this genre in the Baroque era.
Galizia’s contemporaries more appreciated her other works, and it was only in the middle of the 20th century when they noticed her quiet "laconic" still lifes, with vibrating colour and chamber mood.

Artemisia Gentileschi - a feminist artist

Artemisia Gentileschi made it into history as the most famous artist of the Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
era, while the women’s rights movement proclaimed her the first feminist. It’s not only her work, but also her amazing biography that is impressive: it inspired novelists and directors to create numerous bestsellers.
At first, Artemisia studied with her father, quite a famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, whose style

At first, Artemisia studied with her father, quite a famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, whose style took inspiration from Caravaggio, and later — with Agostino Tassi. From that moment, dramatic events started happening in her life. Agostino raped the young woman, she pressed charges against him and the case became widely publicized. The artist was offered to marry a girl, but he was already married and was imprisoned by court order. Artemisia conveyed her emotions in paintings — she chose scenes where women avenged on their offenders or became objects of sexual harassment.

A. Gentileschi. Self-Portrait

  • A. Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes
  • A. Gentileschi. Susanna and the Elders
Restless Artemisia lived and worked in Florence, Genoa, Venice, Rome, Naples and London.

She was friends with Galileo Galilei, knew Van Dyck, Jusepe de Ribera and Sofonisba Anguissola and became the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). After her death, many of Artemisia’s works were attributed to her father.
In 1916, art historian Roberto Longhi became the first one who wrote about Artemisia’s role in the spread of Caravaggism in the north of Italy.

Judith Leyster (1609-1660)

The name of the Dutch artist Judith Leyster remained in the background until the end of the 19th century — many of her paintings were attributed to other Dutch genre painters. Justice was served in 1893, when a painting at the Louvre (which had been attributed to Frans Hals) was discovered to have Judith Leyster’s monogram on it. After a careful research in the Louvre, many works that had been incorrectly attributed to Dirk and Frans Hals were revealed to have been painted by Judith Leyster.
Judith Leyster. Self-portrait
Self-portrait
1630, 74.6×65.1 cm
Back in her days, the artist was highly appreciated: by 1633, she was a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. Judith Leyster had taken on three male apprentices. Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer — an artist who appeared to be the student of Frans Hals.
  • Leyster. Two Children with a Cat, 1629
  • Leyster. The Last Drop, 1630s
Judith’s paintings depict naughty careless children, busy with their pranks, funny boozers, companies of card players, women doing household chores — all this was a new experience for painting of the 17th century.
  • Leyster. The Serenade, 1629
  • Leyster. A Youth with a Jug, 1633

Mary Beale (1633-1699) – the first woman artist in the history of England

Mary Beale only painted portraits. Thanks to her father, who was into drawing, Mary joined the circle of London artists and met Peter Lely, a court painter, who recommended her works.
  • Beale. Portrait Of Mary Wiesel Endwell, 1670s
  • Beale. Portrait of Frances Pierrepont, Duchess of Newcastle
Interesting details about the artist’s work can be found in the notes of her husband — Charles Beale.
Charles took the role of her assistant and kept detailed reports on customers, sessions and expenses

Charles took the role of her assistant and kept detailed reports on customers, sessions and expenses. Moreover, Charles became interested in painting techniques and, together with his wife, began to experiment, recording the results in the special journal entitled Experimental Secrets found out in the way of Painting. These notes include interesting information relating to their trials in manufacturing expensive pigments, experiments in priming canvases and efforts to perfect procedures such as the quick-drying of paint layers.

Mary Beale. Self-Portrait

  • Beale. Edward Stillingfleet, 17th century
  • Beale. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, 1676

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665)

Elisabetta Sirani's contemporaries told that she created pictures with ease and carelessness inherent to brilliant artists.
Her works were famous not only in her native Bologna, but also in Florence and Rome, where she gaine


Her works were famous not only in her native Bologna, but also in Florence and Rome, where she gained her special membership in the Academy of St. Luke. Elisabetta had a very rapid working method, and art lovers from all over visited her studio to see her at work. And although she died at only 27, she had completed over 170 paintings, 14 engravings and many drawings.



E. Sirani. Allegory of Painting (Self-Portrait), 1658

There is a legend about how the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici visited the artist’s st


There is a legend about how the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici visited the artist’s studio and saw her painting Virgin Mary. He liked her work so much that commissioned her to create a similar painting. Elisabetta immediately painted Virgin and did it so skilfully that as soon as the paints dried, the Duke left the studio with the painting.


E. Sirani. Virgin and Child, 1663

Elisabetta Sirani received her professional training from her father, Bolognese artist Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Guido Reni's pupil. Although at first he was sceptical about his daughter’s passion for painting, he reluctantly accepted her into his workshop, and after a few years Elisabetta had already taken the place of her father, who could not work anymore due to arthrosis. Her workshop was a success — Elisabetta trained two her younger sisters and at least twelve other young women there — women artists were treated with great respect in Bologna.
  • E. Sirani. Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1658
  • E. Sirani. Saint John the Baptist
Elisabetta Sirani created portraits, mythological and religious paintings, while her style was so close to that of Guido Reni, that some of her paintings had been attributed to him. Elisabetta was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, in the same tomb as Guido Reni.

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch was not just a famous still-life painter — her beautiful floral compositions belong to the "Golden age" of Dutch painting.
At 15, Rachel was apprenticed to Willen van Aelst, one of the greatest still-life painters. It was h

At 15, Rachel was apprenticed to Willen van Aelst, one of the greatest still-life painters. It was he who taught the girl to combine different types of flowers and turn bouquets into works of art, create asymmetric compositions, skilfully adding bugs, butterflies and grasshoppers to them. Another person, who had his hands in Rachel’s education, was her father, who was a botanist; it was in the family, where science and art reigned, where these beautiful paintings with their delicate charm appeared.

Ruysch. Still-Life with Flowers

Rachelle Ruysch. Flowers in a vase
Flowers in a vase
1730, 89.5×70.5 cm
Rachel’s father, who was a botanist, had his hands in the artist’s education, too: he revealed the s

Rachel’s father, who was a botanist, had his hands in the artist’s education, too: he revealed the secrets of flora to her. Thus, combining science and art, Rachel Ruysch created paintings that fascinate with perfect harmony and extraordinary beauty of nature.

Ruysch. Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn, 1680s

Rachelle Ruysch. Still life
Still life
1711, 44×60 cm
These beautiful ladies built an extraordinary career; historians are trying to make head or tail of their interesting fates to this day, because there are still many mysteries connected with their life and work.