Say it with a sketch: Elisabetta Sirani at the Uffizi

Say it with a sketch: Elisabetta Sirani at the Uffizi

Sat 05 May 2018 9:41 AM

The Uffizi’s now-annual Women’s Day Show covers two bases this year, providing a window onto painter Elisabetta Sirani and showcasing the treasures of a branch of the gallery often overlooked by the tourist-trail public: the Prints and Drawings Department.

Mother and Child, Elisabetta Sirani

Those who know that the proof of a painter’s prowess lies in his or her drawings will want to wander through this small-scale show, Painting and Drawing Like a True Master: The Talent of Elisabetta Sirani, which displays the bulk of Sirani’s 31 sketches at the Uffizi collection, in addition to a sprinkling of her worth-seeing canvases. The Bologna-born artist’s Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting, a gem on loan from the Pushkin Museum of Moscow is, for me, a reminder that historic female painters needed far more marketing savvy than their male counterparts. Diplomacy and grace, beauty and elegance were the qualities sought after in a female artist in the seventeenth century, and Sirani was no exception. Museum-goers will also appreciate the Virgin and Child—the topic was one of her favorites. In 1994, one of her many renditions of this theme was selected by the U.S. Postal Service to be printed on its Christmas stamp. It was the first historical work painted by a woman artist honored in this way.

Art historians are in awe of the 170 works Elisabetta Sirani (1638–55) produced during her brief but intense 27 years of life. Dying under unexplained circumstances, her father, suspecting poison, charged the family maid, Lucia Tolomelli, whom the court acquitted but exiled. Charges were later withdrawn after authorities exhumed her remains and discovered that she had died from a perforated stomach due to exhaustion, overwork and gastric ulcers.

Sirani’s father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, who worked with Baroque painter Guido Reni, is remembered as a gout-ridden, money-hungry painter who pushed his daughter to take on an exorbitant number of commissions, whose proceeds he kept for himself. Her style, likened to Raphael’s, was elegant, refined and classical, which she learned from her teacher Reni. When she was 16 and her father could no longer paint because of his arthritis, she took over his workshop and became the main provider for her family. A member of Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, her talents inspired poets and orators to write her praises. She also was a musician and poet and founded an art school that specialized in training women.

During her prolific career she authored portraits as well as allegorical and religious works, all at startling speed. Astoundingly successful, her clients were suspicious about the authenticity of her works and suspected she had a workshop of hidden—obviously male—collaborators. To squelch these rumors, she invited dignitaries from all over the world to attend painting sessions in her studio. One witness was Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici.

He had admired a portrait she had done of his uncle Leopoldo and decided to order a Madonna painting for himself—she produced the piece by the time he left her studio that afternoon. That work has since been lost, but do not miss the chance for an “Uffizi run” before June 10, keeping in mind that the proof is in the drawing!

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