… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5.)
There were remarkably few women painters before 1800. One of the most promising, who should have been better-known than most of the men of her time, was Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665).
The oldest child of the Bolognese painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610–1670), who had been a pupil of Guido Reni (1575–1642), she was running the family workshop by the time she was only 17 years old. Her success was meteoric until she collapsed and died suddenly in August 1665, aged 27 years, and she has since lapsed into obscurity.
Guido Reni was the senior painter in the School of Bologna, working in Baroque style, as shown in this sensitive version of the ever-popular Lucretia. As was so often the case, his subject, just about to commit suicide following her rape, looks up to the heavens, here as it is her imminent destination.
Giovanni Sirani’s Ulysses and Circe (c 1650-5) gives a good idea of the quality and style of the work which was coming from the family workshop just before Elisabetta had to take charge, because of her father’s incapacity with gout.
Her early work quickly showed her own style, in original themes and composition such as her Baby Jesus and Saint Anthony of Padua (c 1656). Where most other paintings of infants showed them as distant, passive creatures, Elisabetta Sirani showed them more as real babies are.
The following year she completed a pair of simple allegories on unusual elongated octagonal canvases: An Allegory of Fame (1657) shows how quickly she had developed sensitive modelling of a woman’s beauty, with particular attention to details such as hair.
The pendent An Allegory of Virtue (1657) is even more sophisticated in its portrayal of woman.
As with her contemporary Artemisia Gentileschi, she painted several works based on the story of Judith and Holofernes, although there is no record that Elisabetta Sirani had been raped or had any ulterior motive in choosing this story. This Judith with the Head of Holofernes (date not known) was apparently painted after a work of her father’s. Judith appears reluctant to look at the severed head of Holofernes as she places it in the meat bag brought by her old maidservant.
Her own and more original treatment is shown in this Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1658): set outside in the night, Judith stands bright and bold, staring with a look of slight disdain towards the viewer. Elisabetta Sirani has paid great attention to the details of Judith’s clothing, as would be appropriate to the story.
Even more powerful, her Penitent Magdalene also uses a wide tonal scale to heighten its emotive effect.
Compared with Guido Reni’s The Penitent Magdalene (c 1635), the differences in tonal range, composition, and colour are very clear.
The next article will show more of her mature work.