Publication in: Spring 2023 Issue

Alternative Ways of Being: Elisabetta Sirani and her Multidimensional Heroines
Hannah Hansen
Art/Art History
Faculty Mentor(s):
Leisa Rundquist and Laurel Taylor
Abstract / Summary:
Elisabetta Sirani was one of the few known female painters of the seventeenth-century Baroque period. Predominantly dominated by men, painting was a profession where few women excelled. Consequently, Sirani was unique not only because of her gender but also because of her specialization in history paintings containing strong, heroic women from ancient texts. Scholarship on Sirani analyzes the content of her work but does not explore how familial ties and her environment of Bologna, Italy gave her social access to this subject matter as well as success in her profession. This paper focuses on her transgressive works that are unprecedented in the art history canon and that feature known figures such as Judith, Timoclea, Portia and Cleopatra. This body of work includes Judith Triumphant (1658),, Timoclea Killing Her Rapist (1659),, Portia Wounding her Thigh (1664), and Cleopatra (1663),. In these paintings, Sirani creates counternarratives for these women by depicting them in innovative ways, giving them qualities such as courage and assertiveness which were typically associated with men and combining them with more feminine qualities such as beauty and chastity. Furthermore, Sirani chooses narrative moments not commonly depicted by her male or female counterparts. Through analyzing and comparing her works to those of the same subject with her male and female contemporaries, and exploring the background and environment of Sirani, this paper considers the factors that may have given her the freedom to paint these images while living in seventeenth century Italy.
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