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Elisabetta Sirani

(1638–1665, Bologna)

St. Mary Magdalene, Venerating a Crucifix. Brush draw­ing in brown over a light preliminary sketch in red chalk. 18 x 13 cm.

Around the middle of the 17th century Elisabetta Sirani was indisputably one of the most respected young artists in Italy and her style of painting with its distinct Baroque pathos proved highly influential. This “pittrice eroina”, as her first biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–1693) called her in his collection of biographies Felsina Pittrice published in 1678, began her career in the studio run by her father, the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani. He had been one of Guido Reni’s closest associates up to 1642 and set up his own studio after Reni’s death in which he gave painting lessons, amongst others, to three of his daughters. Elisabetta profited from the elite circle of aristocratic and scholarly clients with whom her father dealt, successfully completing her first commissions at the tender age of seventeen. In the decade that followed she became one of the most sought-after artists in Bologna, numbering Cosimo III de’ Medici, the later Grand Duke of Tuscany, among her patrons. In 1662 she took charge of her father’s studio and for a number of years trained students of painting herself before a sudden illness – and not, as originally suspected, poison – ended her life in 1665 when she was a mere 27 years of age.

Elisabetta is known to have set great store by preliminary draw­ings when working on her paintings. She apparently produced numerous preparatory studies for each of her compositions, in which she concentrated on individual figures or large groups of figures as well as on the overall composition. In doing so she employed a wide variety of drawing techniques and used alternating combinations of ink, pen, pencil and chalk. Most characteristic of all, however, are her brilliantly finished point-of-brush drawings, which in some cases reveal only light preliminary drawings in charcoal beneath the ink or, as in the present case, in red chalk. This concise and superbly executed little study sheet shows St. Mary Magdalene recto and verso, each showing her holding a crucifix, in one case pressed fervently
to her bosom and, in the other, as she is about to kiss it. A comparison between the present work and other autograph drawings by Sirani, for instance a study of the Holy Family (Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, inv. no. 4534 S) and a depiction of the Infant St. John (London, Royal Collection, Windsor Library, inv. no. 6377) provides convincing proof of Sirani’s authorship. Literature: Adelina Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani ‘Virtuosa’. Women’s Cultural Production in Early Modern Bologna, Turnhout 2014, esp. p. 118ff.

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