Sunday, June 16, 2013


 "Elisabetta Sirani Painting her Father" Nineteenth-century engraving by Luigi Martelli made from a self-portrait in the then existing Hercolani Gallery of Bologna.  Whereabouts of original painting now unknown.

 Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was a Baroque era painter from Bologna, a city in Italy famous for its progressive attitude towards women's rights, and home to numerous female scholars, scientists and artists. Sirani was a bit of a wunderkind even in that rarified milieu. The daughter of artist Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Elisabetta began her art career at a very early age. By 17 she was a fully trained engraver and accomplished painter and had completed over ninety works. By the time she died at the young age of 27, she had added at least eighty more known works to her repertoire. Sirani also assumed control of the family's art workshop when her father became incapacitated by gout in the early 1660s. She supported her parents, her younger siblings and herself, entirely through her art and her teaching. It is said that  the stress created by such heavy responsibilities may have contributed to her early death. 

Elisabetta Sirani Self-Portrait ca. 1660 

Initially trained by her father, Sirani was encouraged in her career by Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a family friend and influential art writer, who helped her gain recognition for her unusually precocious skill. Sirani was known for her ability to paint well and quickly, so quickly that debate arose as to her work's authenticity, and to counterract these aspersions, art lovers were invited to visited her studio to watch her perform her magic at the easel. A contemporary account reported "There was such speed and directness in her brush that she looked more like a fairy painting than a mere mortal." She  produced portraits and mythological subjects but was especially valued for her images of the Holy family, and the Virgin and Child. She imbued these sanctified subjects with a homely immediacy and familiarity that her contemporary audiences found very refreshing.

Elisabetta Sirani Self-Portrait ca. 1658

When Sirani died at age 27, after experiencing stomach pains, her father suspected she had been poisoned by a jealous maidservant. However, an autopsy revealed numerous lacerations in the artist’s stomach, presumably evidence of perforated ulcers, and the maid (jealous or not) was acquitted of any crime. It's sobering to contemplate the artist's early death, and what wonders what she might have gone on to achieve had she lived longer. To my eye, the artist's extant works show an immense inconsistency of style and technique, as though the young artist was still experimenting and learning even as she gave her command performances.

Elisabetta Sirani "Allegory of Painting" ca. 1665
Sirani recieved a splendid funeral from the city of Bologna which included formal orations, performances of specially commissioned poetry and music, and an enormous catafalque, a bier or scaffolding bearing the casket during the funeral procession, surmounted with a life-size sculpture of the artist. Sirani left an important legacy not only through her artwork but through her teaching. Her pupils included her two younger sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria, and several other young Bolognese women who also became professional painters.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful and interesting article, Nancy! Thanks!

Nancy Bea Miller said...

You're welcome, and thank you for the kind words. :-)