Elisabetta Sirani: Beginning a New Role for Women in Art

By Steadman, Kandace | School Arts, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Elisabetta Sirani: Beginning a New Role for Women in Art


Steadman, Kandace, School Arts


In the fifteenth century, fewer than ten of the artists who were producing work in Europe were women. At that time, it was commonly believed only men had the genius and intelligence for certain professions, including the arts. With the publication of Baldassare Castaglione's book The Courtier in 1525, a major shift in attitude occurred among courts, nobility and the merchant class regarding social behavior and educational theory.

Changing Attitudes

One of Castaglione's tenets praised the merits of an educated woman and advocated basic instruction for women in music, reading and needle arts. Because of the liberating influence of Castaglione's writings, women had more social freedom to pursue an education and, consequently, a possible career. However, academic training in the arts was still unavailable to them, and studying anatomy and the nude were unacceptable for women who were expected to be modest and chaste.

In order for a woman to have the opportunity to learn to paint, she had to exhibit artistic talent at a very early age. It was also helpful to have a father or relative who could teach her. One economic advantage for women who learned the craft of painting--and a benefit also for their fathers--was the ability to earn money and, thus, be able to provide for their own dowries. However, careers of women artists often ended when they married.

Talent Recognized

It was into this changing climate that Elisabetta Sirani was born in 1638 in Bologna, Italy. Count Malvasis, a nobleman and discriminating collector, recognized Sirani's tlent while she was very young and encouraged her father to allow her to study painting. Sirani followed the traditional path taken by her predecessors and studied art with her father. Under her father's teaching, Sirani used bold colors, preferring dark, rich tones. Soon, Sirani eclipsed her father in ability and popularity.

Although her father taught her to paint, he did not intend that she become a professional artist. However, crippling gout affected his capacity to paint, and the responsibility was put on Sirani at the age of seventeen to support her family. Some scholars suggest her father put pressure on Sirani to paint quickly to earn enough money for the household and that he also discouraged her from marrying.

Brilliance Cut Short

Sirani's training as a singer, harp player and poet and her knowledge of the Bible and mythology influenced her work. Many of those who saw her work disbelieved that a woman could paint so rapidly and well. To disprove skeptics, she opened her studio to the public and allowed them to watch her work. Sirani's output was prolific during her brief lifetime.

In the spring of 1665, Sirani was ill with stomach pains which left her thin and depressed, but still, she continued to work. On August 25 of that same year, she died at the age of twenty-seven. Sirani's maidservant was accused of poisoning her food. Her father brought the maid to trial; the maid was acquitted, but the outcome of the trial prompted an autopsy. Holes had perforated Sirani's stomach. Contemporary medicine attributes her death to bleeding ulcers caused from overwork and exhaustion.

Resources

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society. From The World of Art Series. London: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1989.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc., 1979.

Harris, Ann S. Women Artists, 1550-1950. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1977.

Heller, Nancy G. Women Artists: An Illustrated History. …

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