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Details & Cataloguing

Important Old Master Paintings Including European Works of Art

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Elisabetta Sirani
BOLOGNA 1638 - 1665
PORTIA WOUNDING HER THIGH

signed lower left and dated ELISAB.A SIRANI F. 1664


oil on canvas
39 3/4 by 54 3/4 in.; 101 by 138 cm.
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Provenance

Simone Tassi, Bologna, by whom commissioned from the artist in 1664 (see note), from whose Estate acquired in 1675 by;
Ludovico Foschi, Bolgona, until his death in 1696;
Bonfiglioli collection, Bologna (from an old handwritten label on the reverse);
With Wildenstein, New York;
Anonymous sale ("The Property of a Lady"), London, Christie's, December 11, 1984, lot 80;
With Spencer A. Samuels Gallery, New York;
From whom acquired by the present owners in 1988.

 

Exhibited

Paris, L'Oeil Galerie d'Art, Tableaux italiens: XIVe-XVII siècle, June-July, 1973, no. 9;
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Texas, University Art Museum; Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art; Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Museum, Women Artists: 1550-1950, December 21, 1976 - November 27, 1977, no. 31;
Ithaca, New York, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, exhibited 1990-96;
Bologna Museo Civico Archeologico, Elisabetta Sirani: pittrice eroina, 1638-1665, December 4, 2004-February 27, 2005, no. 67;
Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, March 16 - July 15, 2007, no. 65.

Literature

C.C. Malvasia, Felsina pittrice: Vite de' pittori bolognesi, 1678, Ed. Giampietro Zanotti et al, Bologna 1841, vol. II, p. 399;
C.C. Malvasia, Vite de' pittori bolognesi: Appunti inediti, A. Arfelli, ed., Bologna 1961, p. 95, note 28;
A. Manaresi, Elisabetta Sirani, Bologna 1898, p. 129;
P. della Pergola, Galeria Borghese: I Dipinti, Rome 1955, vol. I, pp. 68-69 (under no. 121);
A.S. Harris & L. Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles 1976, pp. 148, 150, cat. no. 31, reproduced p. 77;
J. Butterfield, "Replacing Women Artists in History," in Art News, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 1977, p. 43;
M. Wortz, "Women Artists, 1550-1950: A New History," in Arts Magazine, vol. LI, no. 7, March 1977, p. 101;
F. Frisoni, "La vera Sirani," in Paragone, no. 335, 1978, pp. 12,13,18, note 31, reproduced figure 25;
N. Heller, Women Artists, An Illustrated History, New York 1987, reproduced, p. 34, reproduced p. 33, no. 17
F. Frisoni, "Elisabetta Sirani", in E. Negro & M. Pirondini, La Scuola di Guido Reni, Modena 1992, pp. 345-347, 349, reproduced figure 333;
W. Chadwick, Women, Art and Society, London 1996, pp. 101-103;
A. Modesti, "Elisabetta Sirani", in D. Gaze, Dictionary of women artists, 1997, vol II, p. 1278; 
R. Morselli, Collezionisti e quadrerie nella Bologna del Seicento, Los Angeles 1998, pp. 418, 420, no. 49, reproduced figure 75;
B. Bohn, "The Antique Heroines of Elisabetta Sirani", in Renaissance Studies, 2002, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 66-70, reproduced figure 3;
B. Buscaroli Fabbri and D. Rondoni, Il veleno, l'arte: storia vera e teatrale di Elisabetta Sirani, pittrice, Genoa 2004, reproduced on cover;
I. Graziani, in J. Bentini and V. Fortunati, eds., in Elisabetta Sirani: pittrice eroina, 1638-1665, exhibition catalogue, Bologna 2004, p. 217, no. 67, reproduced;
A. Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani: Una virtuosa del Seicento bolognese, Bologna 2004, pp. 248-250, reproduced figure 142;
B. Bohn, "The Antique Heroines of Elisabetta Sirani," in Reclaiming Female Agency, Feminist Art History after Postmodernism, N. Broude and M.D. Garrard, eds., Berkeley 2005, pp. 88-89, reproduced figure 4.3;
P.B. Phillippy, Painting women: cosmetics, canvases,and early modern culture, Baltimore 2006, pp. 51-60, reproduced figures 5, 6, and reproduced on cover;
F. Frisoni, in Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C. 2007, pp. 250-251, cat. no. 65, reproduced.

Catalogue Note

Sirani painted this lush and unusually composed Portia Wounding her Thigh in 1664, the year before her untimely death.  It is recorded in her own careful notes for that year in detail:

"Una Porzia in atto di ferirsi una coscia, quando desiderava saper la congiura che tramava il marito; quadro soprauscio, e di lontano in un altra camera donzelle, che lavorano, per il sig. Simone Tassi."1

Her patron, Simone Tassi, was a rich silk merchant in Bologna who by his death in 1675 had amassed a considerable and well-chosen collection of paintings both of the Bolognese Cinquecento as well as those of his own contemporaries, including works by Guercino, Cavedone and Mola.  Among the sixty-six paintings in his collection, Tassi had acquired at least five pictures by Elisabetta Sirani, more than any other artist listed in his posthumous inventory.2  The Portia was valued there at some 500 lire, second in value only to a Madonna and Child with Saints by Ludovico Carracci.  The painting was then acquired by another celebrated collector, Ludovico Foschi, in whose inventory the painting was listed, along with most of the collection, without attribution, size or value and simply identified with a description of the subject: "Un quadro d'una mezza figura di una donna che si ferisce con un pugnale con cornice finta dorata."3

After the painting's reappearance in the latter part of the last century, it has become one of the artist's most published and discussed compositions, not only because of its high quality and striking pictorial quality, but also because of its unusual subject matter.  The painting depicts an episode related by Plutarch in his Lives.  Portia notices that her husband Marcus Junius Brutus, Casesar's future assasin, is not himself, and suspects him of keeping a grave secret from her.  Wishing to help ease his mind, she undertakes a test to demonstrate her own strength of character, to prove herself worthy of his confidence:

"This Porcia [sic], being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus's secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and, taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and, soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound. Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: "I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honorable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain." Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife."4

Sirani has followed the ancient account of the incident with great fidelity, depicting the heroine after she has taken a small blade from a toilet kit ("such as... to cut nails"), while her servants sit in a room beyond.  The unusual composition was required by the format demanded of the painting's original disposition as an overdoor, and the artist has skillfully allowed for both the horizontal format and the height at which the picture would be viewed. 

Much discussion has been made about the significance of the present Portia in Sirani's oeuvre, most of it focused on the feminist overtones of the subject matter.5  While some of these observations must remain theoretical, it is certainly very plausible that Sirani meant to make a rather robust statement with the present work.  The figure of the Roman heroine, demure and virtuous, has put aside her household duties in order to prove her own valor to her husband by using a dagger, the symbol of Roman male virtue.  This is in striking contrast to her servants, who are seen in the next room spinning, the epitome of female Roman virtue.  This must have had deep resonance with a woman artist who operated in an exclusively male arena.  However, whatever Sirani's actual awareness of these considerations, we must assume that the choice of the subject was a deliberate one, and one made by the artist rather than the patron. Tassi's collection as a whole is entirely orthodox in its subject matter, and it seems likely that he merely specified a canvas for a specific place in one of his rooms, and let Sirani herself formulate the subject. In doing so, Sirani created what appears to be the unique treatment in all of Italian seicento painting of the theme of Portia wounding herself, as well as a work of great visual potency. 

1  "A Portia in the act of wounding herself in the thigh, when she desired to know of the plot that worried her husband, an overdoor painting, and in the distance in the other room women, who are at work, for Simone Tassi."
2  See R. Morselli, Documents for the History of Collecting: Italian Inventories 3, Collezioni e quadrerie nella Bologna del Seicento. Inventari 1640-1707, Los Angeles 1998, pp. 416-421. The painting was described as "La Moglie di Bruto opera della Sirana con cornice dorata."
3   See R. Morselli, op.cit.
4   See A. Modesti, op.cit., p. 248 passim;  A.S. Harris & L. Nochlin, op. cit. 9p. 150,  and others.
5  A.S. Harris & L. Nochlin, op.cit., quite rightly point out that Sirani had painted other works at about this moment with strong female protagonists, and some with extremely recondite subject matter, such as the Timoclea Vindicated, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

Important Old Master Paintings Including European Works of Art

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New York