Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Elisabetta Sirani: Against the Odds--A Woman Artist in Seventeenth-Century Bologna

Elisabetta Sirani (born 8 January 1638)


Trained by her father, who desperately needed the money she could earn, the painter Elisabetta Sirani was supporting her family by the time she was sixteen--and dead by the time she was twenty-seven. (She died in the city of her birth, Bologna, on 28 August 1665.) In a little more than a decade, she produced an impressive body of work, some 200 paintings and drawings, although as Germaine Greer has noted, "No attempt to present a catalogue raisonné of her whole oeuvre, notwithstanding the great help offered by her own list . . . , has ever been made."

Elisabetta Siran, self-portrait
1658
In addition to her own work, Sirani is also credited with having opened her studio to female pupils. Several of her students went on to professional careers of their own, including Sirani's two younger sisters, Anna Maria Sirani and Barbara Sirani. Greer adds that, after Sirani's death, "her example continued to inspire the young women of Bologna." Among her pupils who continued their studies are the painters Veronica Franchi, Caterina Mongardi, Lucrezia Forni, Teresa Muratori, and Maria Oriana Galli. These women extended Sirani's influence through the distribution of their own work--from the city of Bologna and its environs to Rome, to the imperial court of Vienna, and perhaps even to England. 

Like her older contemporary, the painter Artemesia Gentilleschi (1593-1656), Sirani painted notable versions of the slaying of the Assyrian general Holofernes by the widow Judith, the climax of the Book of Judith. Since we'll be seeing Gentilleschi's depictions of Judith later this year, I've included Sirani's variations here.


Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1658
Burghley House Gallery


Judith with the Head of Holofernes,
The Walters Art Museum

I have relied here on the account of Sirani in Germaine Greer's wonderful 1979 The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, which even today, twenty-five years after its initial publication, remains a compelling--and perhaps the best--analysis of the obstacles faced by women artists. 

Sirani's work was represented in the groundbreaking 1976 Women Artists, 1550-1950 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (For the history of this exhibit, click here.)

For an excellent introduction to Sirani, her work, and a detailed discussion of her Judith paintings, see Jessica Cole Rubinski's recent M.A. thesis, "Elisabetta Sirani's Judith with the Head of Holofernes," available in its entirety here.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., has an example of Sirani's work in its collection:

A detail from Sirani's 1663 Virgin and Child
National Museum of Women in the Arts