“La Dama del Armino Ni del Greco Ni de Sofonisba Anguissola; su Autor Es Sanchez Coello” read the headlines in Madrid, on October 22, 2019, the day of the Grand Opening of the Sofonisba exhibit (along with Lavinia Fontana) at the Prado Museum.
To me, it felt like heresy.
The fight over the attribution of Lady in Ermine is a long one, with most Italian scholars siding with attribution to Sofonisba Anguissola, and the Gallery in Scotland that owns the painting holding to the traditional attribution to El Greco.
The El Greco attribution was untenable for several historical reasons which I outlined in my blog “Sofonisba Cradle to Grave.”
And now, recognition of Sofonisba’s work is on full view at the Prado Museum in Madrid as part of the Prado’s 200 year anniversary celebration.
Scholars have recently re-compared the brush strokes of Sanchez Coello to those of Sofonisba Anguissola to conclude that the Glasgow painting Lady in Ermine, or Woman in a Fur Wrap, is not by El Greco as the collection has long maintained, nor by Sofonisba, as the majority of Italian scholars maintain and the legendary Maria Kusche concluded.
In concluding the attribution goes to Coello, the exhaustive work of the legendary scholar Maria Kusche is being overturned.
Having met and followed Doctor Kusche, I am uncomfortable contradicting her conclusions. Her work was exacting, exhaustive, and compelling. Her Retratos Y Retratadores Sanchez Coello Y Sus Competidores Sofonisba Anguissola is an exhaustive encyclopedia comparing the work of the two Lady in Ermine contestants Coello and Sofonisba.
Because I cannot speak to brush strokes, I will keep to the historical reasons why Lady in Ermine could only have been authored by Sofonisba Anguissola.
That said, history tells us that Sofonisba continually experimented with a variety of styles, why Vasari labeled her to have “inventione” a word he reserved for Sofonisba and Michelangelo to convey their inventive minds. Sofonisba did not limit herself to one style, as can be attested to by her experimentation with various genres including miniatures, thematics, court and family portraiture, religious themes, and marriage and intimacy pieces, among other styles.
But I will focus on the chronological and historic reasons why Lady in Ermine must have been authored by Sofonisba.
It is a simple question of timing and appearance.
Catalina Micaela cannot be 18 years old in Lady in Ermine. The sitter is simply, as a matter of the common eye, patently not a teen. Catalina Micaela as Lady in Ermine is sophisticated, mature, aged. Lady in Ermine is not the face of an 18 year old. That is not a matter of brush strokes, but of observation.
Catalina Micaela was only 18 years old when Coello last saw her, in 1585, when she departed for her life in Turin. As the Duchess of Savoy, Catalina Micaela, the Infanta of Spain and daughter of Philip II, was a living link between the royal Habsburg dynasty in Madrid and its major ally, the Duchy of Savoy.
Coincidentally, it was a dismissed painting by El Greco, The Martyrdom of St. Maurice (which King Philip rejected) that commemorated this historic alliance. In Martyrdom, El Greco showed Emmanuel Philibert, Catalina Micaela’s future father in law, as one of the victors of the Battle of St. Quentin. The treaty resulting from the Battle of St. Quentin, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, was the instrument that called Sofonisba to serve as a lady in waiting at the Spanish Court, where she would see Catalina Micaela born and helped to raise her during her first six years of life, under touching and tragic circumstances.
Sanchez Coello died in 1588, three years after Catalina Micaela departed for Savoy. He did not live to see the mature Catalina Micaela.
On the contrary, Sofonisba lived with her husband Orazio Lomellini in Genoa during Catalina Micaela’s entire tenure as Duchess of Savoy, from the Infanta’s unforgettable arrival in 1585 until her death in November, 1597, in childbirth, at the age of 30 years and one month.
Sofonisba was on hand to greet Catalina Micaela the moment the Infanta touched the Italian Peninsula in June, 1585. Sofonisba’s husband Orazio captained the ship that transported the official delegation from Genoa to Savona to greet the Infanta when she arrived from Spain to begin her married life in Turin. Sofonisba’s death bed portrait by Anthony van Dyck resides today in Turin at the Galleria Sabauda.
That occasion was the opportunity for Sofonisba to paint Catalina Micaela that today is found in Sala 55 of the Prado, also attributed by the museum to Sofonisba’s competition, Sanchez Coello. And yet, my jaw dropped in Sala 55. The Catalina Micaela in Sala 55 echoes Sofonisba’s Lazaro Gallery portrait of Eleonora de Medici which Sofonisba had occasion to paint in 1580 when she was a surprise guest of Francesco de Medici in Tuscany. Like the eyes in the Lazaro Eleonora, the eyes in the Sala 55 Catalina Micaela call out to the viewer. The other portraits in Sala 55 peer out at the viewer.
If the Prado permitted photos, I would here insert a photo of the Catalina Micaela of Sala 55, and I would zoom in on the skirt, in which Sofonisba embedded the “S” of her signature. By then in her fifties, Sofonisba saw the possibility of her legacy slipping away and knew she had to place a marker, so that history would not forget her and misattribute her work to her male contemporaries. No other Prado portrait employs such an S to represent skirt folds; only in Sala 55’s Catalina Micaela.
Catalina Micaela as Lady in Ermine was be painted in the 1590s, when Catalina Micaela was a mature woman, transformed by ruling over a court of her own, the greatest adventure of her heretofore sheltered life.
Sofonisba knew how cloistered Catalina Micaela was in Spain under her strict father. Living a few days journey away from the Infanta-Duchess from 1585-1597, Sofonisba had multiple opportunities to visit her former charge, whose mother she painted, whose father she painted, whose aunt she painted, whose uncle she painted, whose nephew she painted, whose husband she painted, whose daughter she painted.
Why would Sofonisba not be the one to paint the mature Catalina Micaela? Notably, it was during Catalina Micaela’s tenure in Turin that Sofonisba authored “The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,” perhaps as tribute to her Infanta-Duchess patroness.
And perhaps, Sofonisba even experimented with her former competitor’s style, echoing Coello in a nod to their shared time at the Spanish court.
Based on history, I can only conclude that the venerable Maria Kusche was correct.
Competing attributions are a constant theme in the art world, and while we will never know for certain, Sofonisba had the invenzione, the opportunity, and the logistical, historical vicinity to accomplish what Coello could not possibly have done, having been already resting in his grave for five to ten years.