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She Paints for Them

The Creation of Eve

By Lynn Cullen
Putnam, 2010

I fell in love with Sofonisba Anguissola years ago, when I saw her little self-portrait in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and was ensnared by her eyes – they were enormous liquid orbs set in a soft, pale face, and they seemed wise and sad beyond the years of the young woman to whom they belonged. She seemed to be peering at me through the canvas, and although I later learned that this effect was the result of her painting her own self-portrait using a mirror, I could never shake the feeling of personal connection those eyes created.

I wouldn’t shake it if I could: the more you learn about Sofonisba, the more you wish you’d known her in real life, the nicer and more likeable she seems. When I’d returned home to New York after seeing that portrait, I eagerly consulted my parents’ art dictionary to learn more about this remarkable female painter who, according to the line I read in Boston, came to prominence during the Renaissance, when a famous female painter was about as rare as you’d imagine – when a famous female anything other than wife and mother was almost unheard of.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my parents’ big art dictionary didn’t mention her. I must have spent ten minutes flipping the pages back and forth in frustration, looking and re-looking. I’d have grudgingly accepted physical damage to the book itself, perhaps a misprint of pages … but simple omission? It seemed unthinkable, and yet there it was.

Fortunately, it now really is unthinkable. Sofonisba Anguissola was born in 1532 in Cremona, the oldest daughter of Amilcare Anguissola, a bookseller and very minor aristocrat. Amilcare encouraged Sofonisba’s budding artistic ability, apprenticing her with well-known local painters in an unprecedented attempt to give her some formal training in this entirely male-dominated art. When she was twenty-two, she traveled to Italy and managed to get herself introduced to the aging and world-renowned Michelangelo, who gave her a great deal of encouragement and, as far as we can tell, treated her artwork with respect and appreciation.

Her fame grew, and in 1559 Phillip II of Spain invited her to come and give some art tutoring to his new young wife Elisabeth – a post which brought Sofonisba to the attention of the whole Western world, as she executed one beautiful, masterfully detailed portrait after another of the King, his Queen, and a host of illustrious noble sitters at the Spanish court. The whole time, she seems to have comported herself with charm and dignity – and certainly she never lacked for powerful and wealthy people willing to be drawn by the teenaged Queen’s art teacher.

This is the story Lynn Cullen dramatizes in her new novel The Creation of Eve, and the result is endlessly readable, deeply fascinating, and often stunning. Historical novels about neglected or forgotten women in history often make very bitter pills to swallow – you know on some intellectual level that they’re good for you, but they’re deadly serious, overly measured in their doses, and … well, let’s just say aesthetically unpleasing. And at first, when reading The Creation of Eve, I worried that it would be just like that – each chapter starts with a quote, and many of the quotes retail some incident from the usually dolorous universal misogyny of the age, some depressing bulletin like this:

Item: In Madrid, a woman whose only crime was to look especially beautiful dressed in her gown for Mass, was gouged in the cheeks by her husband, his weapon being his fingernails. Her husband was found not guilty of any wrongdoing. She bears the scars on her face to this day.

But that worry is dissipated almost instantly; Cullen is smart enough to know that Sofonisba had a better, more indulgent, more free and comfortable life than 99.9 percent of the other women living on Earth in the 16th century – she knows that if she keeps her focus demographic, she’ll neatly sidestep any drama her story could create. The drama with Sofonisba must lie elsewhere than with universal neglect; this can’t be Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own if it’s going to work on any level.

Instead, the drama comes from passion. Sofonisba and one of Leonardo’s pupils, the sculptor Tiberio, begin an erotic affair virtually under the Master’s nose, and the thoughts and longings Cullen puts in Sofonisba’s head are refreshingly straightforward:

If only I could touch his arms again. From wielding his sculptor’s chisel with Michelangelo, they are roped with veins and hard as the stone he hews. Just the memory of their feel stirs me. But as firm and thrilling as are his arms, it is the skin on the undersides of them that I most crave to touch. It is as soft and smooth as an infant’s cheek.

This is in May of 1559, and of course Michelangelo finds out, and as the novel opens, Sofonisba is despairing of her future. “In the time it takes to pluck a chicken,” she tells us, “I have ruined myself.”

In Cullen’s ingenious fashioning, this is the ultimate prompting for the young painter’s move to Phillip (in The Creation of Eve he’s jarringly but convincingly Felipe) II’s court. There she encounters the King himself (“the most powerful man in the world, a serious, dangerous man, with neither the time nor inclination for a jest”), his newly legitimized half-brother Don Carlos, and most of all his alluring, headstrong, bird-in-a-gilded-cage young wife Elisabeth, who is endlessly watched, endlessly attended by an elderly condesa who, she suspects, reports her every word and deed to her husband. Elisabeth is of the impetuous Valois blood, and when she finds herself installed in the claustrophobic Hapsburg atmosphere of royal Spain, it doesn’t take her long to feel trapped. Nor does it take Sofonisba long to realize – in a fascinating scene most historical novelists wouldn’t have the courage to write – that as much as she might like the Queen, there’s no real help she can offer:

“You should not let the condesa see you this way,” I said.

The Queen stopped. Her breathing echoed under the vaulted arches as she regarded me. “And which way is that, Sofi?”

We stared at each other … and in this moment, as the finches cheeped and [the Queen’s dog’s]nails clicked on the tile, it occurred to me with heartbreaking clarity that I did not know this young woman. Oh, I bathed her, I dressed her, I groomed her. I knew the smell of her skin in the morn. But even knowing all this and so much more, I saw that she was closed to me, and ever would be, as all of us are closed to one another. I would never truly know her secrets. And she would never truly know mine.

There are heartbreaks and dangerous surprises strewn throughout The Creation of Eve (the title, taken from the name of the appropriate panel in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, is a bit disingenuous, as Cullen no doubt realizes; Sofonisba was hardly ‘created’ by Michelangelo, since her fame was growing before she met him and grew quite independently of him for years afterward), but there’s a great deal more to this wonderful book than just its various doomed romances. Everything of that heady, thrilling time is evoked so consistently and effortlessly that they form the very atmosphere we breathe. The miraculous discoveries of the New World are brought to Sofonisba’s attention by the dashing Doctor Debruyne, including tobacco, the smoking of which Sofonisba disdains as medically unsound, and cocoa leaves, the euphoria of which she experiences when she wads some leaves inside her cheek (and other products, perhaps less immediately understood – “We had so much hope for the potato!” laments the good doctor at one point).

More serious current events are summoned as well, especially considering how difficult the new Spanish queen is finding life with her older, sterner husband:

I have heard the English Queen, Katheryn Howard, had been feeding her dogs bits of boiled chicken when King Henry’s men came and took her screaming down the halls of Hampton Court. Within days, her young head had parted ways with her neck, leaving the dogs without a mistress and England without a Queen. It seems she had been carrying on a flirtation with her cousin, and her aging husband could not abide his young wife’s taste for a virile kinsman. Not a soul in Europe had felt sorry for her. She should have known better. For when a King wishes to punish his wife for an indiscretion, it is not called murder.

Felipe never quite accuses Elisabeth of indiscretion (despite palpable tensions, they surprisingly love each other), and she duly conceives his children – first twin daughters, miscarried, then a living daughter, then another, and finally the longed-for son, also miscarried. The final pregnancy cost Elisabeth her life and cast Felipe – and Sofonisba – into a darkness of unfeigned grief. Sofonisba had chaffed at his rough treatment of her royal mistress, but in a touchingly realized development, the two are subtly united in their loss:

Not long after our return to the palace, the King, finding me painting on the Queen’s portrait, stopped to study my work. Alone and filled with remorse and shame that his presence now evokes in me, I painted in silence, the hushed dab of my bush against canvas mingling with the roar of the river outside.

I heard his pained swallow behind me. “You have captured her.”

(This comment is nothing less than the truth: Sofonisba’s portrait of Elisabeth is more lifelike than any snapshot could be – and more wrenching; the young woman’s intelligence is evident, and her haunted yearning for something more than her corseted royal life couldn’t be more plain).

Neither is our painter shy of portraying herself, and whenever she does, she’s unimpressed with her subject. “I was no one,” she tells us, “a simple painting teacher, the daughter of a threadbare count who read more books than he sold.” To this unremarkable status she matches an unremarkable appearance:

My hair is soft brown turning red, my skin pale and given to pink splotches; my eyes bright green and large, too large, unnaturally large, with an excess of whites that are shot with red, more often than not, from too much reading or paint fumes. My sisters call me the Owl, not unfairly.

But her paintings say differently! In them, we see the round, charming face of a woman who came to her fame gradually, in full maturity, through the work of her own innate genius (the exact opposite, in so many ways, of poor Elisabeth of Valois) – a woman who learned the world’s lessons the hard way, and yet could still paint the light of passion in her own eyes, a passion that quickly grew to fill the world stage on which she found herself. “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” asks A Room of One’s Own, and in The Creation of Eve Sofonisba Anguissola is ready with her best answer, as soaring and hopeful as anything Woolf might have secretly wanted:
Self-portraint, 1610

I paint for my sisters. I paint for my Queen. I paint for all the women of the world who, burdened by caring for their families, by the expectations of others, by unbreakable chains of love or gold, can never go in search of their dreams.

The unspoken irony of Cullen’s book is that so many of the dreams of Sofonisba’s own life take place after the action of this novel closes. The world’s foremost female painter went on from Spain to have many other homes, many adventures, and even a few more passionate love affairs (without ever dimming her character – Felipe paid her a generous salary for the rest of his life, for the consolation she was to his wife), but there can’t be any of that in The Creation of Eve. I finished the book hugely satisfied – and eagerly hoping for a sequel.

Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen is currently completing her first year in the Ivy League. She writes occasional pieces exclusively for Open Letters Monthly.