The Originals: Elisabetta Sirani and Clara Peeters

For this next installment of “The Originals,” a series of short biographies of early female painters that began with Michaelina Wautier and Artemisia Gentileschi, comes the following gloss on Elisabetta Sirani and Clara Peeters, two highly prominent 17th century figures who pioneered their respective artistic traditions. Sirani was the most famous woman artist of Bologna (Lavinia Fontana being her chief competitor for this role), helmed her family’s workshop, and even established an academy to teach other female artists of the Renaissance period. Peeters trained in the Baroque style of her native Flanders, but later moved to the new Republic of Holland and became the first of her sex to participate in Dutch Golden Age painting. To learn more about Sirani and Peeters, check out the descriptions below.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665)

For Sirani, art was the family trade. Like Gentileschi, both her peer and precedent, Sirani studied under the tutelage of her father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, a favorite pupil of master painter Guido Reni. Elisabetta, whose faculties at some point eclipsed those of all her relatives (her two sisters were also artists), was herself viewed as Reni reincarnated by Bologna’s public. Yet Elisabetta departed from––or rather, overtook––Reni by employing more chiaroscuro (dramatic contrasts of light and shade), color, and heavy brushstrokes in the 200 paintings, 15 etchings, and countless drawings she produced in her short lifetime. Her prolific oeuvre developed from how quickly she could maneuver the canvas, to the point that many doubted the single authorship of her pieces. As legend has it, Elisabetta refuted such charges by inviting her accusers on May 13, 1664 to watch her go from start to finish in one sitting. After Sirani senior contracted gout, Elisabetta became her family’s primary breadwinner. Further defying gender stereotypes, she garnered great acclaim for the biblical and historical topics of her works as the first woman painter to specialize in the latter (they were only really supposed to do portraits). She was patronized by cardinals, kings, princes, dukes, merchants, and academics from Bologna and across Europe and was one of her city’s main celebrities, the Sirani studio a major attraction for its visitors. Notable works are 13 public altar-pieces, her version of Judith and Holofernes (to be contrasted with Gentileschi’s), St. Anthony of Padua (1662), and the marvelous Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664). Elisabetta never married and her unexpected and therefore “mysterious” passing at the early age of 27, over which her maidservant was put to trial, gave rise to many bizarre theories that cemented her legacy as an enigmatic talent. But whether it was unrequited lust and desperation for a husband that killed Elisabetta (as was rumored) or a ruptured peptic ulcer, she was mourned in death by as many who fêted her in life. 

Clara Peeters (ca. 1594, fl. 1607-1621)

Had a wonderful way of rendering the glint of gold and glass. There is a visual and physical richness to her subjects (like authentic but bizarre-looking Dutch pretzels), although after 1620 she went more monochromatic and thematically humble. She is said to have been a favorite of the wealthy. Here’s Artsy‘s take:

Clara Peeters is one of the few known female Flemish artists of the 17th century, and one of the only to have specialized in still lifes. Little is known about her early life, but her earliest dated oil paintings are from her teenage years. Peeters’ early paintings featured valuable objects like goblets, coins, and exotic flowers, while later works included fruits, nuts, and confections. Peeters is also credited for introducing the “Breakfast Piece”—a still life showing the ingredients of a simple, everyday meal—into the Dutch painting tradition. These were typically arranged on narrow ledges and viewed from low vantage pints, against dark backgrounds. She was hailed for her ability to evoke a human presence through cut fruit, or partially eaten food. On occasion, she captured self-portraits on objects with reflective surfaces within her paintings.

Four of Peeters’ early works were brought to the Prado in the 1620s from the Spanish royal collection. Auction prices hovering around 2.9 million in recent years.


Left: Elisabetta Sirani’s Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting (1658), Pushkin Museum of Moscow. Right: Clara Peeters’ Vanitas (1610). Both via WikiMedia Commons, edited in Trigraphy.

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