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Overlooked No More: Elisabetta Sirani, Story Of A Mastermind

Updated: Feb 23

Elisabetta Sirani
Virgin and Child And Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting | Source: National Museum Of The Women In Arts And Wikimedia Commons

Contemplating the artistry of the Baroque period makes me sometimes wonder how our legendary painters quickly articulated their compositions with a dramatic influence of light and shadows. We often enter the lighter part of the painting faster than the dimmer and darker part. Think of the same composition and visualise it as two connected versions of art where on one hand, amidst the light, there existed painters like Caravaggio, and Johannes Vermeer, whom we love to read about and on the other, there lived a few hidden painters in the shadow, we are still unaware of. Amidst those, one of the most extraordinary female painters of the seventeenth century was Elisabetta Sirani. Died at the young age of 27, she managed to become a professional artist with more than 150 artworks in her lifetime. Today in this article, we will reflect on her life and famous artworks.

Who Was Elisabetta Sirani?


8th January, 1638


28th August, 1665 (Age 27)

Father Name

Giovanni Andrea Sirani




Quadri da stanza, Portraits, Religious Paintings, Allegories, etc.

Number of Paintings



Contrasts of light and shade, artificial illumination.

Born on 8 January 1638, she was the oldest daughter of Giovanni Andrea Sirani, the pupil of the leading Italian baroque artist Guido Reni. She had two sisters, Anna Maria and Barbara and one brother sibling, Antonio Maria. At a young age, she lost her mother, and the responsibility of a breadmaker surrounded her during that time. After her father was incapacitated by gout and became chronically invalid, she managed her entire family, even taking care of finances through various commissions. At 17, she started her first commission, and in her lifetime, she described around 150 paintings in her diary with dates and motives written. It made it easier for historians to trace her work and helped us to read it thoroughly. As per Otto Kurz,

"The list of paintings to be found under her name in museums and private collections and the list of those paintings which she herself considered as her own work, coincide only in rare instances."

Elisabetta Sirani Self Portrait
Elisabetta Sirani Self-Portrait | Source: National Museum Of Women In The Arts

Looking At Elisabetta Sirani Paintings.

Elisabetta handled numerous range of subjects like religion, allegories, and portraits. Considering her figures, she was fond of giving them a look as elegant heads with slightly larger eyes, long noses and small, rose-bud mouths. Although she painted sentimental Madonna, following Reni, she also drew inspiration from her bolognese contemporaries, Lorenzo Pasinelli, Flaminio Torze, and Fleming Michele Desubleo. Her first worthy public commission that took attention was Study for the Baptism of Christ, 1658. She decorated the two sides of chapels at the entrance and central position of the Carthusian Church with this composition. Here, she drew a preliminary sketch with execution with pencil, red chalk and brown watercolour.

Elisabetta Sirani paintings Study for the Baptism of Christ
Study for the Baptism of Christ by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Unknown Author

One of the famous Elisabetta Sirani paintings is the Portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity. In this composition, she displayed a subtle use of lively touches of red and blue with an illuminance of overall colour schemes of browns and greys in figures and backgrounds. Further, there is richness in Brushstrokes and emphasis on Ranuzzi's maternity.

Elisabetta Sirani paintings Portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity
Portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi as Charity by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Robert SImon Fine Art

Elisabetta Sirani never left the privilege to depict the heroic women in her paintings, as we can witness from Timoclea, 1659, Portri Wounding her Thigh, 1664, etc.

Elisabetta Sirani artworks Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great
Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great by Elisabetta Sirani | Source: Sartle

She chose the exact moment where Portia wounded herself to test her strength of character before asking Brutus to confide in her in the composition. Through titillating images of female wounding, she showed sexualised content. As a result of stabbing herself deeply in the thigh, Portia must demonstrate that she is virtuous and worthy of political trust by separating herself from the rest of her sex. With her usage of rich colour and confident brushstrokes, Sirani established her reputation as a phenomenon in Bologna.

Achievements The Artist Claimed.

In addition to fine drawing and painting, Elisabetta Sirani wrote poetry, played the harp and etched with religious subjects. She was a master artist who worked with speedy skill. In 1652, Sirani opened a school for young artists in Bologna and taught them to paint. During her brief yet productive life, she was the star of the community and society. Furthermore, the excellent relations she had with noblemen and the wealthy class enabled her to earn a good income.

Her Ending Days.

Elisabetta Sirani felt and complained of stomach pains during Lent in 1665, but they passed quickly. On August 28th, she died suddenly after feeling those symptoms again. The reason was unknown at that time, even after the post-mortem. But in 1898, the Bolognese medical journal took the case to find the cause of her death, and concluded that due to peptic ulcers, she died. By virtue of her membership in Academia di sa Luca in Rome, she received a civic funeral in Bologna after her death. Her premature death did nothing to impair her fame.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What was Elisabetta Sirani known for?

Elisabetta Sirani was the pupil of Guido Reni and one of the famous female Baroque artists who came to attention for the painting Study for the Baptism of Christ. Further, she opened a school for young artists in Bologna and taught them to paint, making her a significant member of the society.

How many paintings did Elisabetta Sirani make?

While Elisabetta Sirani drew 150+ artworks in her lifetime, only 150 of them are known to the historians.

Was Elisabetta Sirani married?

Elisabetta Sirani died at the young age of 27, and though she was one of the leading female artists of Bologna at the time, she never married nor had any known relationships.

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