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Elisabetta Sirani: beginning a new role for women in art.

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.


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. New York: Abbeyville Publishing Group, 1987.

Krull, Edith. Women in Art. Cassell UK, 1990.

The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s. Oxford University Press, 1993.

RELATED ARTICLE: Understanding the Work

Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy is one of the rare mythological pieces executed by Sirani. In Greek mythology, muses are considered the lesser deities of heaven and preside over song, poetry and the arts and sciences, inspiring the minds of their followers. Melpomene is the dramatic muse of tragedy, prompting those who turn to her for guidance to explore the woeful aspects in theater.

Unlike the figures in many of Sirani's paintings, Melpomene looks directly at the viewer with a sad expression. Intense colored clothing and drapery provide sharp contrast to the stillness of the figure. Strong diagonal lines in the composition--the edge of the book, the angle of the arms and tilt of Melpomene's head, the fringe of the drapery and angles of the tables--contribute to the action.

RELATED ARTICLE: Questions about the Work

1. What can be seen in this work?

(Melpomene is flanked by books and a quill in an ink pot, which represent literacy. The mask in the lower left corner, a representation of the human face, reflects warm-colored hues, contrasting with the cool colors of Melpomene's flesh. A final human element is brought into this mythological setting with the left hand of the muse twisting a lock of hair.)

2. In addition to depicting a personification of the muse, how does this painting serve as an allegory of Sirani's adverse life?

(Melpomene has removed the mask of tragedy and faces her audience directly. Sirani boldly faced those who were skeptical of her talents as an artist. Death is a common tragic device in drama, and it is played out in the unfortunate death of Sirani during the height of her career. Melpomene uses the written word to document tragedy, and Sirani's canvases attest to brilliance cut short. It is ironic that this painting foretells the outcome of its creator. Truly, tragedy is at work in this painting.)

RELATED ARTICLE: Activity Extensions


* Have each student create a mask using a variety of materials. The masks could represent human faces, animals or something from the imagination. Have them explain to their classmates why they chose to create that particular mask.

* Discuss muses as personifications of inspiration for things such as art, music, science and math. Encourage the students to draw a person as the muse of one of the school subjects for which they need lots of inspiration.


* Encourage students to complete two writing exercises giving personification to objects around them. One of the essays should treat the object in a tragic manner. The other composition should be taken from a comic point of view.

* Challenge the students to create a figurative sculpture by converting an inanimate found object--such as a bottle, fork, spoon or shoe--into a humanized muse or source of inspiration for one of their more problematic school subjects.

High School

* Discuss personal sources of inspiration, or what could be considered as contemporary muses. Have each student select something that promotes creativity in them. Using journal writing, have them write about what they have chosen and why.

* Using the same muse, encourage each student to create an artwork that visually lets the viewer know the source of inspiration and how it has motivated the creator.
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Title Annotation:art lesson; includes related materials
Author:Steadman, Kandace
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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