A young girl looks out from the canvas, her hair pulled elegantly off her face. It is pleated atop her head, crowned with a small black bow and a delicate white daffodil. Her deep brown eyes contrast with her smooth, pale skin. An intricate white lace collar encircles her neck, partially covering her earlobes. The same lace adorns her wrists, its design offset by the black slashed velvet dress that she wears. Barely visible are black necklaces dangling from her neck. In her hands, she cradles a marmoset (a monkey), which looks outward as well, pausing from nibbling on its snack. Nothing else accompanies the two—it is unclear where they are; they are simply set against a dark, empty background.
We know the identity of the sitter (the individual whose portrait captured here). This is the Infanta (a term that refers to the daughter of the king) Catalina Micaela, accompanied by her favorite animal companion, a long-tailed marmoset from Brazil. This painting is not only an example of a beautifully painted sixteenth-century portrait of a member of the Spanish royal court, but it is also a painting by a member of the royal court: the female painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Originally from Cremona, Italy, Sofonisba had come to the Spanish court as a lady-in-waiting to Isabel of Valois, Queen of Spain (King Philip II’s third wife). Catalina Micaela was one of Isabel’s daughters, and Sofonisba was close with Isabel and her two daughters.
Sofonisba painted this portrait of the Infanta around 1573 when the young girl was around six. By this point, her mother Isabel had died and Sofonisba had become a caretaker to the girl and her sister, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia.
In addition to the portrait of Catalina Micaela, Sofonisba also painted a similar type and size portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia. The existence of other paintings of King Philip II and Queen Anne of Austria (Philip’s wife after Isabel’s death), each with a similar muted background and color palette though larger in size, suggests that this was originally a family grouping, likely meant to be displayed together. They were all painted just before Sofonisba left the Spanish court, leading some scholars to suggest that she painted the set as a parting gift.
Animals often appear in portraits of the Spanish court. In Sofonisba’s portrait of the Infanta, a golden chain and harness are barely visible but are attached to the small monkey, indicating its status as a beloved pet of the Infanta. Records indicate the fondness the young girl had for the monkey, she even had dressmakers create smocks and other clothes for it. 
Other portraits of Catalina Micaela and her family members show monkeys and parrots accompanying them, such as in a portrait of the two infantas with a green parrot. Exotic animals from far away places, such as Brazil, were prized possessions among nobles and royalty, and even helped to symbolize the power and prosperity of the Spanish Empire.
Sofonisba’s skill and background
Sofonisba’s skill as an artist are on full display in this portrait. The smoothness of the surface in the portrait of Catalina Micaela demonstrates the small, delicate brushstrokes that Sofonisba used to develop her painting. The delicacy of the lace, the hairs of the marmoset—these details are painted with remarkable skill.
Before joining the Spanish court, Sofonisba had grown up in a noble household in Cremona (in Italy), and often painted her family members. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, sought out artists to train Sofonisba, and worked hard to elevate her status as an artist. It is possible that Sofonisba had been in contact with Michelangelo, although it is also possible that this was a fabrication intended to cast Sofonisba in a positive light—to increase her fame by associating her with the fame of Michelangelo. Her skill and renown became well-known, and she would be invited to the Spanish court to serve as lady-in-waiting to Isabel of Valois and help to teach the queen how to paint and draw.
She painted other members of the court alongside artists like Alonso Sánchez Coello or Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between works by these artists, and unsigned works have been attributed to all three of these artists on occasion. More recently, paintings have been studied using x-rays to help determine who painted what, and exhibitions (notably a recent show at The Prado) have tried to give Sofonisba her due.
Sofonisba’s time at the Spanish court continued to elevate her fame (already established before joining the Spanish court), especially with her privileged ability to paint members of the royal family, such as Catalina Micaela. Her fame followed her until the end of her life; she died in 1625 in Palermo, Sicily, having lived a long life with an illustrious career.
 Leticia Ruiz Gómez, ed., A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana (Madrid: Museo del Prado, 2019), cat. 156
Read more about renaissance Spain
Michael C. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020)
Paula Tinagli et al., Women in Italian Renaissance art: gender, representation, identity (Manchester University Press, 1997)