Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638–1665), Virgin and Child, 1663; Oil on canvas, 34 x 27 1/2 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. Conservation funds generously provided by the Southern California State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. National Museum of Women in the Arts © 2012 National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Elisabetta Sirani's Virgin and Child portrays Mary not as a remote Queen of Heaven but as a very real, young mother.
Wearing the turban favored by peasant women in Bologna, Mary gazes adoringly at the plump baby wriggling on her lap. Within her embrace, the Christ child playfully leans back to crown his mother with a garland of roses, which she lowers her head to receive. Sirani's virtuoso brushwork is clearly visible in the Virgin's white sleeve, thickly painted to emphasize its rough, homespun texture.
The Virgin's only ornaments are her blue-patterned headscarf and a gold tassel at the corner of the pillow on which the Christ child rests. This touch of glitter and the floral garland seem especially noticeable in contrast to Sirani's plain, dark background. The artist's signature and the date appear in gold letters set along the horizontal seam of the pillow.
According to written records, when she died at 27, the Italian artist Elisabetta Sirani had already produced 200 paintings, drawings, and etchings.
An independent painter by 19, Sirani ran her family’s workshop. When her father became incapacitated by gout, she supported her parents, three siblings, and herself entirely through her art.
Sirani spent her life in Bologna, a city famous for its progressive attitude toward women’s rights and for producing successful female artists. She became known for her ability to paint beautifully finished canvases so quickly that many visited her studio to watch her work. Her paintings were acquired by wealthy, noble, and even royal patrons, including the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.
Sirani’s funeral was an elaborate affair involving formal orations, special poetry and music, and an enormous catafalque decorated with a life-size sculpture of the deceased. In addition to her substantial oeuvre, Sirani left an important legacy through her teaching. Her pupils included her two sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria, and more than a dozen other young women who became professional painters.