Elisabetta Sirani’s "Charity": A drawing for a Medici Treasure
Born in 1638 in Bologna, Elisabetta Sirani learned to paint in the studio of her father, the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610–70). Her artistic practice proved very successful, making her the family’s financial provider when her father became too ill to work. Her patrons included the Catholic Church, as well as nobles, merchants and members of the House of Medici. Sirani, who died in 1665 at the age of 27, is known to have completed nearly 200 paintings and some 15 etchings during her short lifespan. Some 200 extant drawings are also ascribed to her. She became known for her unusual, fast way of working and, in order to dispel doubts that she did not make the works herself, she would invite patrons and other curious visitors into her studio.
The difficulties encountered by 16th- and 17th-century women forging a path in the arts were immense. Not being free to study with just anyone, for instance, they were usually restricted to learning art from a close family member. The fathers of artists Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653) were both painters. Sirani, however, became a teacher in her own right, when around 1652, she opened her own school for women artists in her hometown of Bologna, a city that allowed women greater opportunities than other urban centres. Founded in the 11th century, the University of Bologna, for example, began admitting women from the 13th century onwards. By opening her own school, Sirani herself contributed to breaking the glass ceiling by training at least fourteen other women artists.
After her mysterious, premature death that raised suspicions of poisoning, Sirani was given a lavish public funeral and – in recognition of her artistic accomplishments – she was laid to rest in the same tomb as her father’s teacher, the highly influential painter Guido Reni (1575–1642). Today, Sirani’s works are found in many museums across the world. The National Gallery of Canada acquired her drawing Charity in 1956. Until recently, little was known about this work, but new research by art historians Adelina Modesti and Babette Bohn connects it to Sirani's 1664 painting Allegory of Justice, Charity and Prudence, now in the collection of the Comune di Vignola, Modena.
Commissioned by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici in 1663, the painting depicts three virtues symbolizing the Medici family. Sirani herself relays this important commission in her writings, published by the art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–93), who was a family friend and Sirani's biographer. Sirani’s pride in this prestigious commission is palpable in her recounting that Leopoldo gifted her a cross with 56 diamonds in admiration of her talent. It is also discernable in the fact that she boldly signed the centre of the canvas with the letters "ELISABA SIRANI,” each letter wittily inscribed in one of the twelve buttons of Justice’s bodice. It is an audacious statement for any artist, and even more so for a woman.
The figural grouping of Charity with two infants depicted in the Gallery’s drawing re-appears in the Medici painting, as well as in a larger, compositional study acquired by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2018. The NGC and RISD drawings, although used as parts of the process of creating the large painting, are more than mere sketches: they are bravura pieces meant to impress – showcasing Sirani’s adept use of brush and ink to jot down her composition in a painterly manner. "[Sirani] would quickly take a pencil," explains Malvasia, "then swiftly sketch out a couple of lines on white paper and then her idea (this was her usual manner of drawing, as a great master, indeed, and practiced by few…) and with a small brush dipped in watered-down ink, she would quickly make her ingenious invention appear, so that one could call it design without drawing, shaded and lit all at the same time."
In both the NGC and RISD drawing, Sirani made preliminary outlines in ink and chalk and then applied ink wash, just as Malvasia describes. This technique is difficult to master and demonstrates skilled draftsmanship. The wash confers three-dimensionality to the figures and drapery, and a rich chiaroscuro – the contrast of light and shadow – to the scene. In the 2022 exhibition Drawing Closer at RISD Museum, curator Jamie Gabbarelli proposes that Sirani sent the RISD compositional sketch through her local agent Annibale Ranuzzi to Florence for the patron's approval. Indeed, the layout of the final painted version is already fully worked out in this drawing, including the poses of the figures and the arrangement of the draperies.
The NGC and RISD sheets present a high degree of finish, but no other working drawing for the Medici painting has been located. In keeping with 17th-century Bolognese artistic practice, Sirani would have produced a number of preparatory drawings, an important component of her artistic and creative process. Her Madonna and Child seated on Clouds – one of 34 works by the artist in the Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – is an example of such a preparatory sheet and was possibly used for Madonna of the Rosary, part of the altarpiece in the church of Coscogno. Executed in black chalk heightened with white, it shows Sirani working out the exact positioning of two figures. Here, she draws freely, with quick, multiple strokes as she considers different options for the placement of the Madonna's head, sketching it at two different angles, and the left arm, choosing at least two alternate positions before deciding on a compromise. While the artist's thinking process is clearly visible in the Royal Collection drawing, the NGC’s more static Charity is rendered in the near-final form that then appears in the RISD presentation sheet and in the Medici painting – the only difference being the placement of the infant with a toy on the left. Originally the child was placed in Charity’s right arm in the NGC drawing, but in the RISD drawing and the painting Sirani cleverly moved the child behind Charity’s shoulder, so as to achieve a more balanced and dynamic multi-figure composition.
The new insights into the previously obscure NGC drawing bring once again to light the career of a highly talented young woman artist. As Malvasia states, “we had not soon finished talking about [alterations to a drawing] when we saw it completed, and she courteously made a gift of it to me.” In turn, the NGC drawing gifts us – more than three and a half centuries after it was sketched – evidence of a commission of the highest order and the dazzling draftsmanship of a Baroque maestra and true pioneer.
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