Clara Peeters, Still life with grapes on a tazza, a basket of fruit, two crayfish on a plate and a squirrel, 1613.

Five Female Artists to Know​ in the Renaissance and Baroque

In honor of Women’s History Month, I will be spotlighting lesser-known female artists throughout the art history canon. The artists in this post were all active in the 16th and 17th century.

Fede Galizia

Fede Galizia, Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1596.
Fede Galizia, Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1596. Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 × 37 in. (120.7 cm × 94 cm). The Ringling, Sarasota.

Fede Galizia (c. 1578– c.1630) was a Milanese portrait painter who worked in secular and religious themes. Her ability to render the clothing, jewelry, and likeness of her sitters in incredible detail made her highly sought after in her time.

Portrait of Paolo Morigia, 1592-96. Oil on canvas, 34.6 in. × 31.1 in. (88 cm × 79 cm). Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

An exceptional example of her skills as a portraitist can be seen in Portrait of Paolo Morigia (1592-96), Morigia, who was a Jesuit scholar and one of Galizia’s patrons, is shown as an old man, dressed in the white robes of his order and is surrounded by attributes that reflect his scholarly works. The reflection seen in Morigia’s glasses attests to Galizia’s understanding of creating an illusion of reality in her paintings. Morigia’s personality is evident in this portrait, reminiscent of many portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster, 1523. Oil on canvas, 28.9 in. × 20.2 in. (73.6 cm × 51.4 cm). National Gallery, London.

Galizia died of the plague in Milan around 1630. Her attention to detail, command of the use of light and shadow, and uncluttered compositions matched and even surpassed her male counterparts and firmly places her work as some of the best examples of painting in the Late Renaissance.

Levina Teerlinc
Levina Teerlinc, Queen Elizabeth and the Ambassadors, c. 1560.

Levina Teerlinc (c. 1510 – 1576) came from a family of well-known Flemish painters. She was one of five daughters of the miniaturist Simon Bening, who specialized in illuminations in books of hours. Her mother’s family was related to Hugo van der Goes, one of the most influential Flemish painters of the 15th century, most known for the Portinari Triptych (c. 1475).

She served as court painter to the Tudor court, under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII paid her an annual salary of 40 pounds, more than what was granted to Holbein during his time at court. She remained the only female court painter at the time of Henry VIII’s rule.

Portrait of Elizabeth I, c. 1565.

Despite being a prolific portrait miniaturist during her time at the Tudor court, many of them were either lost in the fire at the Palace at Whitehall in 1691 or cannot be attributed to Teerlinc since she never signed her works. It is known that she created portraits of Elizabeth I from 1559-1575 as well as a New Year’s portrait of Mary I in 1556. She died in London in 1576.

Elisabetta Sirani

Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting, 1658. Oil on canvas. Pushkin Museum of Arts, Moscow.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638 – 1665), like Teerlinc, came from an artist family. Her training began in her father Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s studio, alongside her two sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria. The techniques that she incorporated into her work, learned from her father was an extension of what he had learned from the Bolognese school of painting, led by Guido Reni.

Throughout her short life, Sirani painted over 200 paintings and hundreds of drawings. Unlike some of her counterparts, Sirani signed her works and took careful inventory of all she had made. In doing so, her paintings and drawings could not be attributed to her father. Her style derived initially from Reni’s but eventually would employ a stronger sense of light and shadow, color and a greater command of the brushstroke.

Judith with the Head of Holophernes, second half of 17th century. Oil on canvas, 92.9 in. × 72 in. (236 cm × 183 cm). Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, Peoria.

Her body of work features a range of subjects, both religious and secular, with women at the center of her compositions. Her version of Judith with the Head of Holophernes depicts Judith in the aftermath of the slaying of the Assyrian general to save her village from plunder and rape. Here, Judith is the center of a triangular composition that harkens back to the Renaissance. In previous treatments of this subject, most famously in Caravaggio’s (1) and Artemisia Gentileschi’s (2) versions, Judith’s actions are actively encouraged by her maid, but here Sirani has given Judith full agency, with the maid serving as a supporting character. Her direct gaze, lack of interaction with the head and aloofness further distinguishes Sirani’s interpretation of this story. Sirani did not need to show Judith’s emotions. The presence of the severed head–the evidence of the act itself–spoke volumes to Judith’s strength.

(1) Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598-9. Oil on canvas, 57 in. × 76.7 in (145 cm × 195 cm). Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.
(2) Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1611-12. Oil on canvas, 62.5 in. × 49.4 in. (158.8 cm × 125.5 cm). Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

Sirani died under mysterious circumstances in 1665, perhaps a victim of poisoning. She was given an elaborate funeral by the city of Bologna and was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico alongside her father and Guido Reni. A grand catafalque with a sculpture of Sirani marks her final resting place.

Matteo Borboni, Catafalque of the Bolognese Artist Elisabetta Sirani, 1665. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash over graphite on off-white laid paper;  11 5/8 in. ×  5 7/16 in. (29.5 × 13.8 cm). Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York.

Catharina van Hemessen

Self-Portrait, 1548. Tempera on oak panel, 12.5 in. × 9.8 in. (32 cm ×  25 cm). Kunstsmuseum Basel.

Another artist hailing from a family of painters (her father was Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1500-after 1563), a Mannerist who studied in Italy), Catharina van Hemessen was a Flemish Renaissance painter known for small scale portraiture. She is given the distinction of being the first artist, male or female, to paint herself seated at an easel at work.* Included is an inscription that says “I Caterina van Hemessen have painted myself / 1548 / Here aged 20.”**

Quite successful in her time, her most prominent patron was Maria of Austria, sister of Charles V and regent of the Low Countries from 1531-1555. Van Hemessen remained in her patronage, even relocating to Spain with Maria of Austria’s court even after Maria’s regency over the Low Countries had ended. After Maria’s death, van Hemessen received a generous stipend for life and moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch where her husband took a position.

Portrait of a Lady, 1551. Oil on canvas. Bowes Museum, Durham.
Portrait of a Young Lady, c. 1560. Oil on wood panel, 12 in.× 9 in. (30.4  cm × 22.9 cm). Baltimore Museum of Art.

Her collection of portraits are known for their realism; her sitters rendered in a dignified and subdued manner. Particular attention is paid to dress and accessories, as seen in the gold elements, elaborate headpiece, and lace collar in her Portrait of a Young Lady from 1561.

She is mentioned in two artist biographies: Lodovico Guicciardini’s Description of the Low Countries of 1567 and Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1568 edition.***  Her surviving paintings can be found in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in London.

Clara Peeters

Vanitas Portrait of a Lady, 1613-1620. Oil on panel, 14.6 in. × 19.7 in. (37.2 cm × 50.2 cm). Private Collection.

Very little is known of Peeters’ early life, but what is known is that she was born in Antwerp in 1594. She might have become active as a painter in 1607, but no records exist of her apprenticeship or membership in the Guild of St. Luke, the local organization for painters.

Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl, c. 1611. Oil on panel, 21.6 in. × 28.7 in. (55 cm × 73 cm). Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Fortunately for scholars, thirty-one paintings made between 1607-1621 exist with Peeters’ signature, most of these completed before the age of eighteen. Many of these paintings were still-lifes known as ontbijtjes or breakfast pieces where food and everyday containers were the subjects and banketje or banquet pieces in which luxurious pitchers, glasses and precious metals were a prominent feature.

Clara Peeters, Stilleven met kazen, brood en drinkgerei, c.1615
Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c. 1615. Oil on panel, 13.5 in. × 19.4 in. (34.5 cm × 49.5 cm). Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Ontbijtjes and banketje paintings allowed her to not only to document the types of food, cutlery, goblets, and pitchers used by the wealthy classes but also to explore the relationship with light on reflective surfaces such as metal and glass. On such surfaces, Peeters was able to incorporate a self-portrait, often hidden on a goblet or vase on a minute scale, further illustrating her artistic skill.****

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 7.43.19 PM
Detail from Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c. 1615. with Peeters miniature self-portrait.
Still Life with Flowers, a Silver-gilt Goblet, Dried Fruit, Sweetmeats, Breadsticks, Wine and a Pewter Pitcher, c. 1611. Oil on panel, 20.4 in. × 28.7 in. (52 cm × 73 cm). Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Still-life with dead game, c. 1611. Oil on panel, 20.4 in. × 27.9 in. (52 cm × 71 cm). Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

She was also the first artist to make fish and dead fowl (typically associated with the hunt) the main subject for some of her works, in particular, those made in 1611-12.

In 2016, the Prado mounted an exhibition focused solely on Peeters and was the first of its kind at this institution to feature a female painter. She is regarded as a pioneer of the still-life genre and an important painter of the Dutch Golden Age.

Further Reading:

Fede Galizia:

Fede Galizia on CLARA

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art, and Society. Thames and Hudson, London, 1990.

Fortunati, Vera; Pomeroy, Jordana; Strinati, Claudio, Italian Women Artists: from Renaissance to Baroque. Milan, 2007.

Harris, Anne Sutherland and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Knopf, New York, 1976.
Levina Teerlinc:

Portrait miniature of Katherine Grey, Countess of Herford

Portrait of an unknown woman

Elisabetta Sirani:

Ragg, Laura M., The Women Artists of Bologna. London, 1907, 229–308.

Bohn, Babette, “The Antique Heroines of Elisabetta Sirani,” Renaissance Studies, vol. 16, no. 1 (March 2002): 52-79.

Modesti, Adelina. Elisabetta Sirani ‘Virtuosa’ Women’s Cultural Production in Early Modern Bologna. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2014.

Catharina van Hemessen:

Heller, Nancy, Women Artists: An Illustrated History. New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.

Kemperdick, Stephan,  The Early Portrait, from the Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein and the Kunstmuseum Basel. Munich: Prestel, 2006.

Clara Peeters:

“Gaze”: Hochstrasser, Julie Berger, in Gaze, Delia, ed. “Peeters, Clara” in Concise Dictionary of Women Artists, Routledge, 2013.

Slive, Seymour, Dutch Painting, 1600–1800, Yale UP, 1995.

The Art of Clara Peeters-Exhibition-Museo Nacional del Prado

* Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Wadsworth, 2009.


***Catharina van Hemessen, in Delia Gaze, Dictionary of Women Artists: Artists, J-Z, Taylor & Francis, 1997, p. 661.


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