A short-lived Baroque virtuoso painter, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) of Bologna, Italy, was one of the first successful female artists in an era that denied academy training to women. Educated in voice, harp, poetry, classical literature, and the Bible, she drew on a wealth of influences for subjects. In a brief career, she etched 14 plates and turned out an astonishing collection of oil paintings of allegorical and dramatic art from historical, scriptural, and mythological subjects.
Elisabetta, Barbara, and Anna Maria Sirani were the three artistic daughters of painter and art teacher Giovanni (or Gian) Andrea Sirani, a follower of renowned Bolognese religious etcher-painter Guido Reni. Elisabetta was born on January 8, 1638. A beauty known for modesty and hard work, she studied classic models from antiquity and perused the best canvases and statuary of 16th-and 17th-century Italian painters from her home town as well as Florence and Rome. Unlike men apprenticed in art, she made no formal study of male nudes.
The Artist in Training
Sirani was fortunate in acquiring a mentor, the collector, biographer, and art historian Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia. He recognized her promise and affirmed in Vite di Pittori Bolognesi [Lives of Bolognese Painters] that her work was "of supreme quality." He advised Giovanni Sirani to encourage her in the arts beyond the usual attainments of Renaissance girls.
Under skilled instructors, Elisabetta developed a distinctive style. From Reni, an imitator of Raphael, she learned narrative organization and lyricism while serving as her teacher's studio assistant. From studying with her father, she developed a taste for dark, rich jewel tones, the dominant palette in Italian fashions and residential decor. By her mid-teens, she soon outpaced his talent and earned her own commissions from admirers and seekers of vigorous, creative talent.
A Teenage Professional Artist
Sirani's father never intended for Elisabetta to earn a living painting and engraving. After he lost flexibility in his hands from gout in 1655, however, he set his 17-year-old successor to support the family from her earnings. Historians surmise that he not only influenced her to paint quickly, he also discouraged suitors to keep his golden goose unmarried, working at her easel and earning profits from her admired canvases. She apparently kept none of her earnings for herself.
Locals doubted Elisabetta Sirani's skills and assumed that she had help in completing oil paintings at such a fast pace. To prove them wrong, she arranged an exhibition of work in progress at the Sirani studio and invited European artists and the public to observe her methods. According to one anecdote, when the Grand Duke Cosimo III de' Medici visited her workplace in 1664 to watch her paint his uncle, Prince Leopold de' Medici of Tuscany, Cosimo commissioned a Madonna for himself. Sirani filled the order immediately so that it could dry before he left for home.
Artist of Narrative Dramas
Sirani flourished at historic and religious scenarios and, by age 17, completed over 190 drawings. One of her most dramatic works is the unmasked figure of Melpomene, the Greek tragic muse, who inspired creators of drama, art, poetry, and music. Pale-hued and cool against a backdrop of fringed drapes, she sits turbaned and pensive at a table among the tools of her trade, including quill pen, ink pot, books, and the flesh-toned mask worn by the stage performer.
Sirani flourished at biblical representations of the temptress Dahlia, mistress and betrayer of Samson with scissors in hand; a penitent Mary Magdalene set against a gloomy cave with her guileless young face uplifted and one hand drawing auburn tresses over her breast as though concealing a sinful heart from a slender crucifix and skull; and many views of the Virgin and Child. Sirani's other period works include a sly Cleopatra dropping herbs into a bowl, Berenice clipping a strand of hair, Cain killing his brother Abel, Michael overcoming Satan, "The Madonna of the Rose" (ca. 1660), a jubilant cherub lifting bow and purple banner to the skies, and "St. Jerome in the Wilderness" (1650; a narrative depiction of the translator of the Vulgate Bible). Well received for its grace, the undated "Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist" groups the Virgin Mary and her maternal aunt Elizabeth in conversation over active a nursing infant Jesus and his toddler cousin John while Joseph turns his back and sets about his carpentry plans. The scene implies that women recognize the most important work, while men absorb themselves with temporal affairs.
Captured the Lives of Women
Like her Bolognese forerunner, painter Lavinia Fontana, Sirani tended to focus on bold, outstanding female subjects. From classic mythology, she chose the rape of Europa, which she produced on oversized four-by-five foot canvas. In 1664, Sirani painted a languorous pose featuring Galatea, Pygmalion's ivory statue whom the goddess Aphrodite brought to life, selecting a pearl from the salver held out by a cherub. One of Sirani's most admired scriptural scenarios is Judith, the majestic heroine of the apocrypha who murdered the drunken Assyrian overlord Holofernes and beheaded him with his own sword. In the painting, Sirani presents Judith in jeweled turban triumphantly extracting the gory head by the hair from a sack with a firm two-handed grip. While three onlookers gaze down by torchlight at the results of her deed, Judith looks confidently ahead, fearless in the exacting of justice against a feared despoiler and threat to the Jews. Contributing to the bold act is a wisp of a moon, horns turned upward as though reflecting the power of Astarte, goddess of war and sexuality.
From Roman history, in 1664, Sirani painted "Portia, Wounding Her Thigh," a mini-drama in which the noble daughter of Cato and wife of Marcus Brutus contemplates stabbing herself with a knife to prove that she can keep quiet during the conspirators' plot to assassinate Julius Caesar. The elegiac pose pictures the anguished wife with cool flesh exposed for the deed. Anachronistically, Sirani costumes her in the deep wine and gold tones common to formal Renaissance dress and emphasizes jewelry, billowing sleeves, brocaded wrap, jeweled scabbard, and pearl-entwined hairstyle over the knife, a minuscule blade that is mostly concealed in Portia's clenched hand. In the background, Sirani reduces in size and importance the four men in debate of their murderous scheme. The scenario parallels the quiet desperation of women whose lives account for little against the grand actions of males.
Renowned for chiaroscuro, the play of light figures against a dark backdrop, Sirani avoided stark outlines and applied pen and wash to soften edges, a method that enhanced her wild-eyed figure of St. Madeleine. The artist's brushwork was a flurry of rapid daubs, evidenced in images of women as victims of society and self. One bare-breasted figure pictures a female painter, whom some identify as Sirani. Art historians detect notes of masochism in her self-image, suggesting some resentment against a daily life filled with painting, but leaving little time for friends and relaxation.
Sirani's self-portrait, completed around age 22, features a plain, yet appealing woman, paintbrush in hand, with large oval eyes sizing up her subject. Disarmingly rosy-toned and feminine in high-busted blue gown, full white sleeves, dusky pink drapings, pearls, and brooches, she seems overdressed and out of place with palette clasped in her left thumb and daubs of paint ready for application to her canvas. She duplicated the pose and detailing for "The Allegory of Painting," which placed a rapt artist concentrating on completing her canvas.
The Unfortunate Death of a Great Talent
In the spring of 1665, Sirani grew depressed and under-weight. An undiagnosed stomach ailment triggered her collapse. She forced herself back to work through the summer and died on August 25 at age 27. The city of Bologna honored her with a lavish public funeral. Her body was displayed on a catafalque symbolizing the Temple of Fame. An effigy depicted Elisabetta at work with her brushes. At the church of San Domenico in Bologna, her family interred her alongside Guido Reni, who had instilled in her a love of elegance, lyricism, and artistic invention. Malvasia, her mentor, penned an ornate, celebratory biography that called her "the glory of the female sex, the gem of Italy, the sun of Europe."
Andrea Sirani blamed Elisabetta's maid for the unexplained illness and death and charged her with poisoning the girl's meals. After a court acquitted, but exiled, the accused, the authorities grew suspicious of Elisabetta's death. They exhumed her remains and discovered that she died from a perforated stomach, perhaps from the combined effects of overwork, exhaustion, and gastric ulcers.
Sirani's Contributions to Religious Art
Elisabetta Sirani's oil paintings earned the praise of her contemporaries, including royal collectors who displayed her canvases in palaces and public halls. In addition to arranging a painting school for women, to a doubting world, she left proof of the female artist's competence—a collection of studies and drawings, 14 etchings, and 170 paintings. For one commission, she executed for the Church of the Certosini in Bologna "The Baptism of Christ." In 1658, she produced a nave adornment for the Church of San Girolamo, an achievement that increased her fame.
One outstanding mother-and-babe pose, the tender "Virgin and Child" (1663), Sirani painted for Paolo Poggi. The scene, set against a dark backdrop, displays the babe tossing a rose garland onto the head of his mother. The smiling pose placing face by face depicts a sweet and intimate relationship. Crucial to contrast are the Virgin Mary's finely worked headdress and Semitic skin tones against the swaddling clothes and innocent pink of Jesus' face and arms. In 1994, the United States Postal Service honored the painting, making it the first historical work by a female artist printed on a Christmas stamp. The image adorned over 1.1 billion stamps. In August 2000, Sirani's works were exhibited at Christ Church, Oxford, in a showing of drawings of the Old Masters.
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