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Suzanne van de Meerendonk: My name is Suzanne van de Meerendonk and I am the Bader Curator of European Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. In this Collection Highlight, we take a closer look at Elisabetta Sirani’s etching The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist. In this touching depiction of motherhood and kinship, we see the Virgin Mary nursing her son Jesus while playfully interacting with the infant Saint John the Baptist. John’s Mother, Saint Elizabeth, is seated right next to them winding the swaddling bands of the newborn Christ child. While most attention is given to the women and children, Mary’s husband Joseph can be seen in the background doing woodwork. Almost entirely covered in shade, his axe however gleams in the sunlight, ready to strike – a singular detail focused on hard, manual labor that draws contrast to the tender scene in the foreground.
Sirani’s etching was acquired by Agnes in 2018, and, dating to the 1650s, it represents the earliest work known to have been created by a female artist to enter our European art collection. Early modern Europe was a highly patriarchal society, and not many women were able to establish themselves as independent masters. As a result, collections of historic European art often count few artworks documented or signed by women artists. That does not mean, however, that they did not exist, but rather that such works were often not recognized, undervalued and under-collected. There may be women artists among our unsigned, unattributed artworks, and we just would not know because no name has been preserved. And with no name, there is usually less scholarly attention for a work, and so the cycle continues.
Elisabetta Sirani, however, was very aware of the importance of signing her works to promote herself and her abilities. Trained by her father in Bologna, Italy, she was celebrated for her depictions of biblical and mythological subjects, a genre then still almost entirely dominated by men. The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist exemplifies her brief but remarkable artistic career, and we are lucky to be able to care for it here at Agnes.
In this audio guide, we deepen our understanding of this artwork through the lens of two distinct perspectives. The first is by Kingston-based artist Rebecca Cowan. She brings a maker’s perspective to the work by looking at its finest details and staged etching process. In the second audio segment we hear from art historian and renowned Sirani expert Dr Babette Bohn, who situates the print further in the artist’s dynamic hometown of Bologna.
Rebecca Cowan: I’m Rebecca Cowan, I’m an artist, primarily printmaking but also book arts, here in Kingston. I have been printmaking for over thirty years. And I actually had no idea what an etching was when I started art school. And I took an etching class, and I just fell in love with it.
I thought I would start out by just taking a minute to talk about how an etching is made. A copper plate is coated with a resist or ground. Originally these resists were mostly wax but in 1645 a French artist, Jacques Caillot, published a manual of etching that recommended using the kind of varnish that instrument makers used. Once coated, a sharp tool or needle scratches lines through the resist to create an image. And there are a variety of different needles that you can use and they give you a different thickness of line. You can also vary the pressure to change the thickness of your line. The plate is then placed in a bath of Dutch mordant, which is a mixture of potassium chloride and hydrochloric acid. Any mark on the plate that is not covered with the ground is etched and creates a line. This process can be repeated more than once. And finally, the plate is cleaned off of all the resist, and inked, and printed using damp rag paper on an etching press. And the reason that damp paper is used so that the ink goes right into the fibers of the paper.
The first thing that struck me was really the variety of line. So I wondered if she used different needles, or if she put the plate into the acid more than once. Or if it is a combination of both. So I suspect it is a combination of both. Because there are very fine lines in the foreground of the image, for example Mary’s feet and the pillow. And also very fine lines in the background. And then the lines of the drapery and the babies and of course Mary and St Elizabeth are much darker. So, I can only imagine this if I were doing this etching. I would probably start with a very fine needle and do an initial etch of basically where I want everything to be. I would etch it, take it out of the acid, clean it off, maybe run a proof, and then recoat it. Now the great thing is that the resists that Elisabetta was using were transparent. So she could see the lines she’d already created. So I think then she would go back and redraw the lines that she wants to be darker. Of course the other option is she may have simply been such an adept draughtsman that she was able to control the pressure she used on her tools as she was using them.
One of the things I would say about when you are etching in black and white like this, there is a constant tug, when you are creating images like this, between the foreground and the background. I think that the stairs were added afterwards with a very light etch to push the image of Joseph further into the background. If it had been a light background he would have taken more prominence. It seems to me like the two women and the little pillow, everything we really would consider foreground, was done first. And then you would start working on the darks adding more lines where you want the darks and that might be a second etch. That would include of course all these crosshatching of the shadows and I noticed that Mary’s neck is very dark and the outline of her face is very dark. If Elisabetta wanted to add something in the background but felt that the foreground was complete, she would simply have to make sure her varnish was very heavy there, was very thick so that the acid would not go into it.
What I love the most about etching is that you never know exactly what is going to happen in the acid bath. I mean you have a plan, but the acid strength varies depending on the temperature, how many plates have gone in the acid, how long you leave it in the acid, you know, and so you can think that you have a certain image, and then when you clean off your plate and you print it, it might not be what you had planned. So I always feel like I’m in a conversation when I’m making an etching, I’m not working alone. And when I’m teaching in my own studio, I sometimes think that I would like to have a little recording of a fanfare that happened [laughing] you know [laughing] after—after somebody has pulled something. Because so often people pull a print and they’re like “wow I didn’t think it would look like that!” or “oh my god that’s horrible!” [laughing] you know but more often happy, right, because you don’t— even if you are very experienced there are always surprises and that is one of the fun things.
Babette Bohn: My name is Babette Bohn, I am professor of art history at Texas Christian University and I have been working on the women artists of Bologna for a long time. I just recently published a book on the women artists of Bologna in which Sirani is one of the star players. Elisabetta Sirani is, I think, a fascinating figure in the history of art. She’s an exception to many of the usual rules or tendencies that govern painting in Italy. For starters, she is a woman, which makes her unusual to begin with. She is not the first woman in Italy to be a painter, but she actually is one of the earliest to become what we call a peintre graveur that is a painter who also makes prints. Sirani was principally a painter, she produced around 200 paintings and she was only occasionally an etcher, producing ten etchings that are still known today.
Sirani principally produced religious subjects. Even within the context of her painted production her single most popular most frequently repeated subject either includes or exclusively represents the Virgin and Child. And she shows the virgin and child interacting in a variety of ways. Sometimes the Christ child is crowning Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Sometimes as in your etching he is nursing so it is a more intimate mother-child connection. Sometimes they are interacting more playfully. Sometimes Mary is worshipping the Christ Child. So this is a subject she thought quite a lot about and one might be tempted to hypothesize that as a woman she was sensitive to the mother-child relationship. But she herself had no children, never married and in fact died quite young at the age of twenty-seven, so I think we have to be careful about hypothesizing too much based on the artist’s gender, but certainly this was a favorite subject of hers and I think many of them are notable for the intimacy in the ways they portray the interactions of the Virgin Mary with her infant child.
Etching was a relatively new art form so it is not surprising that we don’t have loads of Italian women who were active as etchers before Sirani. In the sixteenth century there are some earlier Italian printmakers, Isabella Parasole and Geronima Parasole for example were both woodcutters and Diana Mantuana is active also in the sixteenth century and she works as an engraver. But women begin to produce etchings on the historical record as far as we know only in the seventeenth century and so Sirani is one of the earliest. I do think it is noteworthy that in Bologna itself Sirani’s example creates a precedent and she is succeeded by a number of women who are active as etchers in the later seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century.
Women artists in Bologna are recorded beginning in the fifteenth century and there are a growing number of women artists whose names and to some extent careers I was able to track down in the course of working on my book so today I can point to some 68 women artists, which makes Bologna by a considerable margin the number one Italian center for women artists.
Bologna is a really interesting city in a lot of ways. The churches of Bologna are effectively redecorated in the course of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries so it provided a location that was really full of opportunities for all artists male and female during that period. I think another key factor in Bologna is that it was filled with dozens of noble families and quite a wealthy and prosperous merchant and banking class and fascinatingly lots of people from what today we might call the lower middle class up were commissioning and collecting artworks. So, in terms of Sirani, her most original conceptions in my view were typically produced for merchants and bankers and fishmongers and jewelers rather than for noble patrons and perhaps she felt freer to think out of the box while working for sympathetic patrons who were perhaps a little less wedded to traditional approaches. So, it was a pretty exciting place to be as a woman artist and Sirani’s very successful example paved the way as I already mentioned in some measure for literally dozens of painters, many of whom like Sirani enjoyed successful public careers. So really success breeds success I guess we might say and Sirani’s success opened lots of doors for other women artists to follow her exciting example.
Dr Babette Bohn is Professor of Art History at Texas Christian University. She has published widely on the artists of early modern Bologna, including books on Guido Reni, Ludovico Carracci, and Federico Barocci. In recent years, she has focused in particular on the women artists of Bologna, who form the subject of her most recent book entitled Women Artists, their Patrons, and their Publics in Early Modern Bologna (Penn State University Press: 2021).
Rebecca Cowan is an award-winning printmaker and book artist living in Kingston, ON. Her work has been exhibited extensively in Canada, as well as internationally in the United States, India, Korea and Australia. Following studies in theatre design at Ryerson University and English Literature at York University, she trained at Toronto School of Art. There she fell in love with printmaking, which continues to be her primary medium.
Dr Suzanne van de Meerendonk is the Bader Curator of European Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. She is a specialist of early modern European art, in particular Dutch art of the seventeenth century.