Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was an Italian Baroque painter whose career exemplified both the opportunities available to female artists in early modern Europe and the pitfalls confronting them (especially compared to their male counterparts). Born in Bologna, she came from an artistic family but soon outpaced both her father and sisters, rising to become one of the ancient city’s most prominent painters. Her fame grew to such an extent that she was able to open a school specifically to teach women artists, the first non-clerical establishment of its kind.
Sirani is one of the featured artists at the “By Her Hand” exhibit presently ongoing (through the end of May) at the Detroit Institute of Arts and was probably my single favorite from my visit a couple of weeks back, her vivid use of color (especially reds) distinctively striking given the contemporary trend towards shadows and darker hues. Portia Wounding Her Thigh (in the header) was particularly apposite given the theme of the exhibit (showcasing both the celebrated and little-known women of early modern Italian art, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Caterina de Julianis, whose astonishing religious dioramas I really need to give a closer look on my next go-round). I was especially taken with Berenice, her painting of the legendary Egyptian queen that was directly contrasted in the exhibit with a characteristically subtle Rosalba Carriera pastel of the same subject a century later.
Sirani’s death at a young age even for the time was the cause of morbid speculation; at some point a disgruntled servant came under suspicion, but the most likely cause was peritonitis brought on by stress-related ulcers. The various explanations for the latter have ranged from heartbreak due to her lonely social position—as a female artist, it was difficult for a number of reasons to make time for the typical rituals involved in courtship and marriage—to worries over money given her newfound position as her family’s primary support (both possibilities feeding the rumors—endorsed by her early biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia—that her father privately discouraged her marrying in order to maintain her rate of production). Whatever the real cause, her death caused widespread grief in Bologna, and the city went to the unusual step of erecting an elaborate catafalque in commemoration. Though the tragedies and injustice of her career were sadly typical of women’s lives in early modern Europe, the quality of her work and its endurance lend them a special intensity, and I for one, am grateful that I was able to experience and learn from her vision and craft.
Have a safe and pleasant day, everyone.