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A spotlight on outstanding women artists and their works in the Royal Collection

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65)

A self-portrait c.1650-55

RCIN 906360

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A wash drawing of the Infant St John the Baptist, seated on a rock with a lamb at his side

The Infant St John seated on a rock, the lamb at his side ©

Elisabetta Sirani meets our gaze here in this arresting self-portrait, the earliest known such work by her. Taught by her father Giovanni Andrea, she became head of his workshop at the age of 24. She occupied a unique position as a successful female artist training apprentices of both sexes – including her sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria – and as the primary economic provider for her family.

In 1762, George III purchased much of the art collection of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, which included 60 drawings attributed to Sirani. Around 40 years later an inventory was taken which described the largest group of these as ‘spirited Study’s for various pictures’. The Infant St John seated on a rock, shown here, is an example of the rapidly-executed, expressive ink and wash drawings for which Sirani was particularly celebrated.