The Smith College Museum of Art curator Danielle Carrabino on acquiring a masterful drawing by Elisabetta Sirani
‘I was thrilled at the idea of acquiring a Sirani. Most museums today are trying to buy more work by women artists — and as a women’s college we feel this to be especially incumbent upon us. This drawing has it all.
‘It is a self-portrait, the artist as she wishes to be portrayed, which is powerful. I personally was attracted to the economy of it: she achieves a great deal with just a few strokes, and without the use of colour apart from a little red.
‘Her gaze is so arresting, so striking. Elisabetta Sirani completely disrupts the idea that women could not be artists at this point in the 17th century — and in fact she founded an academy for women artists in Bologna.
‘We knew that the estimate was conservative, given how rarely Sirani pops up on the market, so we decided we were going to bid high: we didn’t want to walk away empty-handed. That’s how we came to buy this drawing at the Old Master sale in New York.
‘“Old Master” is of course a strange term to apply to a woman. The problem of nomenclature is something much discussed in the museum world right now. The thing is, there are not many alternatives: “Old Mistress” sounds horrible.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘At Smith we usually call works such as this “historic”, but then most of our works are historic. What we can say is that Sirani had mastery in the sense of great skill; this is a masterful drawing.’