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A self-portrait by Giovanna Fratellini.

6 Talented 17th Century Painters for Women in History Month

This week in celebration of Women in History Month, the Italian Tribune looks at six Italian women painters who were born in the 17th century.

Giovanna Garzoni

Giovanna Garzoni was born in 1600 in Ascoli Piceno in the Marche district. She was a prominent painter in Europe during the Baroque period. She began her career painting religious and subjects from mythology, but became famous for her watercolors of botanical objects. Her work was precise, balancing space with a keen realism of her subjects. Garzoni is also notable for being one the few women in the 17th century who decided to travel through Europe, for both education and painting, rather than settling down to start a family.

Giovanna lived in Rome until she was 20 and received her first commission when she was 16. In 1620, she went to Venice to attend school. During that time she wrote a book on cursive characters, while continuing to paint. She worked for the Duke of Alacala in Naples for a year and then went back to Rome, but in 1632, she was persuaded to move to Turin to serve as the miniaturist for the Turinese court. After several years there, she spent two years in Paris and then traveled back and forth from Rome to Florence until 1651, where her primary patrons were members of the Medici Family, particularly Grand Duke Ferdinando II, Grand Duchess Victoria and Cardinal Giovanni Carlo. Giovanna’s pieces were so well received by the public that they commanded any price that she requested. Garzoni died in Rome in February 1670 at the age of 70.

Elisabetta Sirani

Another Baroque painter was Elisabetta Sirani, who died at the early age of 27. Like many others born into an artistic family, she was first trained in her father’s studio, who was a painter of the School of Bologna and a pupil of Guido Reni. She overshadowed her father, who retired with gout leaving Elisabetta to provide for the family. Her studio was incredibly successful, certainly helped by the progressive atmosphere of Bologna, where women artists were not only welcomed, but were celebrated. She also taught her younger sisters and at least 12 other young women at a school she set up to train artists.

Elisabetta’s death created significant controversy. She died suddenly in August 1665, in Bologna. Her maidservant was charged and put on trial, but the charges were dropped. Her actual cause of death was most likely the onset of peritonitis after a ruptured peptic ulcer. This as a result of the intense stress she was under as the sole breadwinner for her family.

Sirani received her first commission in her teens and produced over 200 paintings, 15 etchings and hundreds of drawings. She was a highly prolific artist, especially considering her young age. She kept meticulous records of her paintings and signed many of them. Her works cover a number of subjects, including historical and Biblical narratives, often featuring women and portraits. Sirani was also the first female artist to specialize in historical painting. Her patrons ranged from cardinals to kings, princes, dukes, merchants and scholars from across Europe. She was such a celebrity that noblemen and diplomats would come to her studio to watch her work. She was so talented that she could complete a portrait in one sitting.

Sirani’s style is similar to Guido Reni’s, but Elisabetta employed more dramatic contrasts of light and shade, virtuoso brushstrokes and brilliant color. Her striking images of female heroines, such as “Portia Wounding Her Thigh” are comparable to the work of Artemisia Gentileschi.

Margherita Caffi

During the 17th century, still life paintings by women became increasing popular. One of the prolific artists and teachers of the era was Margherita Caffi (1650 – 1710), an Italian painter of still lifes of flowers and fruit. She was born in Milan in 1650. Her father, Francesco Volo, was a still-life painter himself. In 1668, she married Ludivico Caffi, also a still-life painter, in Cremona. The couple settled in Piacenza in 1670 and began a family. Margherita continued to paint as she raised four children, occasionally collaborating with other artists. She painted the background for Federico Bianchi’s “Flora” c. 1690.

Margherita’s style was that of the classic Baroque. Her specialty was flower arrangement and her lively brushstrokes and use of colors that burst from darker backgrounds won her many admirers. The large-scale paintings had ample space to showcase her use of texture, color and perspective as flowers hung from green stems in a gathering of garlands, carnations, tulips, dahlias and many other varieties. Among her patrons, the Archdukes of Tyrol, the Kings of Spain and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany; in particular by Vittoria Della Rovere and her grandson, Grand Prince Ferdinando III. Each admired the showy bouquets as representative of the grandeur of aristocratic life. The last years of her life were spent in Milan, where she began a school for still life painters. She died in Milan in 1710 at the age of 60.

Giovanna Fratellini

Born into the wealthy Cortesi family in 1666, Giovanna Fratellini grew up in Florence and was trained in painting and music. She married Guiliano Fratellini in 1685. Due to her high-born status and her excellence in arts, Giovanna was selected as a lady-in-waiting to Vittoria della Rovere, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Her works consist of oil, pastel, miniature enamel and chalk. Famous for her portraits, she had a way of bringing nobility and refinement to her subjects. Additionally, she also painted fables, bacchanals and historical subjects.

After training in the art of miniature painting with the Capuchin monk-painter Ippolito Galantini and pastels with Domenico Tempesti (c.1655-1737), she honed her skills with Anton Domenico Gabbiani. In addition to portraits, Giovanna is documented as a religious painter for Cosimo III. Prince Ferdinando commissioned several historical and mythological pieces composed in pastel. She is frequently compared to the Rosalba Carriera. The two met in Venice and Fratellini expressed her great admiration to the painter’s work.

Fratellini was accepted into Florence’s Accademia del Disegno in 1706 and elevated to full member in 1710. Throughout her lifetime, Fratellini shared her artistic expertise with several female painters, most notably, Violante Beatrice Siries Cerroti, who will be covered in next week’s feature and who replaced Fratellini as court painter after her death.

Her self-portrait in 1720, shows her in middle age, glowing with energy and charm. In the painting, she can be seen working on a portrait of her son, Lorenzo Fratellini. Today, it hangs in the Uffizi, which also houses a large number of her pastels commissioned by the Medici family. Giovanna died in 1731.

Rosalba Carriera

One of the most influential Rococo artists was Rosalba Carriera. Born in Venice in 1673, in her younger years she specialized in portrait miniatures, but later Carriera would later become known for her pastel work in the Rococo style. By any measure, she must be remembered as one of the most successful women artists of any era. Her family was from the lower-middle-class and as a child, her initial artistic creations were lace-patterns for her mother’s business. She moved on to painting miniatures for the lids of snuff-boxes, which evolved into portrait-painting and her pioneering use of pastel. Royalty, nobility and prominent visitors to Venice would not consider the Grand Tour complete without a portrait by Carriera. In 1704, she was made an ‘Accademico di Merito’ by the Roman Accademia di San Luca, a title reserved for non-Roman painters.

Carriera played an important role in popularizing the Rococo style in Europe, where George III of England became a major collector of her work. Carriera was the first female painter to initiate the new style in the art community. The Rococo style emphasized the use of pastel colors where light seemed to dance and subtle tones were used to create an elegance in her subject. She had an unusual ability to represent textures and patterns, faithfully re-creating fabrics, gold braid, lace and jewels, show-casing the life-style of her wealthy patrons. Her works created a style for portraits that were in vogue for almost a century.

In later life, Carriera made a long journey to the royal court in Vienna. Holy Emperor Charles VI became her benefactor and amassed a collection of more than 150 of her pastels. Her status in the court was so esteemed that the Empress herself, served as Carriera’s assistant while receiving formal artistic training.

Throughout her career, she made several self-portraits. The best-known is one that she contributed to the Medici collection, now in the Uffizi Gallery. This piece was different because she veered away from idealizing herself, as was a custom of the era.

As she grew older, Rosalba had vision problems and although cataract surgery was twice attempted, she ultimately lost her sight. She outlived all of her family, spending her last years in a little house in Venice, where she died at the age of 84 in 1757.

Giulia Lama

Another Venetian was Giulia Lama, who was born in 1681. She was trained initially by her father, Agostino Lama and later studied alongside a childhood friend, Giambattista Piazzetta, who became a prominent Rococo painter. As a result of learning side-by-side, the two painter’s styles are similar, especially in the use of sharp contrasts between light and dark.

Lama was well known for her plain appearance, but in addition to being a great painter, she was gifted in mathematics, poetry and lace making and she was also an inventor. Her lack of physical beauty was a prejudice that affected numerous women painters, including Rosalba Carriera.

Her dark, tense style was contrasted with the dominant pastel colors of the late Baroque era. She had a successful career in private and public figure painting. Giulia appears to have been the first woman to break the barrier against women studying and drawing the nude figure from life. Over 200 drawings that were recently discovered clearly show that she indeed studied both male and female nude figures during her training.

One of her pieces, a Crucifixion altarpiece remains in situ at San Vitale. Unfortunately, many of the details of her life remain undocumented. She died in Venice, the city of her birth in 1747 at the age of 66.