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 supposed to only really paint 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 main 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.

The Originals: Michaelina Wautier and Artemisia Gentileschi

Before Vigee Le Brun and Mary Cassatt, before Frida Kahlo and Helen Frankenthaler, before Georgia O’Keefe and Julie Mehretu, before Elizabeth Murray, Marlene DumasAlice Neel, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, were female painters of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. This post inaugurates a series of short biographies that will examine their lives and work.

Michaelina Wautier (1617–1689)

Wautier was from the Southern Netherlands and active in Brussels. She painted portraits, historical scenes, still-lifes, and everyday tableaus (30 have been credited to her), a departure from the oeuvre of her woman peers, who primarily made studies of flower compositions. Wautier sold four of these paintings to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who also specially commissioned several works. Her well-known self-portrait was misattributed to Italian Artemisia Gentileschi (described below) in the 1905 book Women Painters of the World, but the error was later corrected. Another recognizable piece of Wautier’s is The Triumph of Bacchus (1650), which can be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Her first ever solo exhibition will take place at Rubens House in Antwerp. According to ArtNet News, the survey is slated for 2018 and will include an overview of the many genres in which she practiced. Wautier’s 1654 painting of a Jesuit missionary was recently sold at auction for around $400,000.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

Much more famous than Wautier and a rare talent. Hyperallergic did a good write-up. Here’s Artsy‘s characterization:

A legendary figure and one of the first female artists to pursue a career on the same terms as men, Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s work is often overshadowed by the conflicting narratives that surround her, especially her rape by a colleague of her father at the age of 17 and the notorious trial that followed. Like her father, Orazio, with whom she trained, Gentileschi painted in the style of Caravaggio, illuminating her subjects with powerful stage lighting to heighten effects of emotional drama. Her figures were mostly heroic women drawn from history, mythology, and religious subject matter, including Cleopatra, Lucretia, and Mary Magdalene, often depicted nude and eroticized. Gentileschi’s most famous work, Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1614–20), is notable for its brutality combined with a masterful rendering of flesh tones and fabrics.

Also noteworthy: Gentileschi was the first of her sex to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. And despite the fact that the mark of her rapist long obscured Gentileschi’s achievements, she is today considered an important figure in the canon of women artists. Patronized by the Medicis, tribute is also paid to her in Judy Chicago’s feminist pantheon, The Dinner Party (1974-79), which is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum.

Left: Michaelina Wautier’s Self-portrait with easel (1640-1649). Right: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639). Both via WikiMedia Commons, edited in Trigraphy.

New Yorker, New Art

Two recent art-centric articles in the New Yorker that deserve your attention: (1) The Met and the Now and (2) The Custodians: How the Whitney is Transforming the Art of Museum Conservation. Both discuss the lasting future of contemporary art in the ever-shifting landscape of the art world, the former in the context of the Metropolitan Museum’s contemporary art department and the plans for its growth, the latter in relation to Carol Mancusi-Ungaro’s efforts to bridge or link the Whitney’s conservation department to its new replications committee. Enjoy!

Recommended Reading: Hyperallergic’s Take on Two Public Art Pieces Around This Summer

This article by art blogazine Hyperallergic compares Jeff Koons‘ contentious public sculpture, Split-Rocker, now at Rockefeller Center, to Kara Walker’s old Domino Factory sphinx, Sugar Baby, which I reviewed here. The parallels drawn in this essay by Jillian Steinhauer are rooted in politics; in traditional progressive fashion, she speaks a lot about how race influences art and has an interesting take on the personality versus the size of each work. I have yet to see Split-Rocker, so I cannot say for sure whether her portrayal is accurate or appropriate, but I hope this referral inspires you to go and see both aforementioned creations!