Elisabetta Sirani's paintings were done in the Baroque style using dramatic light and rapid brush strokes.  Many of her large scale paintings were made in public in front of large crowds.  Sirani did this to dispel the rumor that her artwork was made by her father.  Aside from being a very popular painter, at the age of 19, she also ran the family workshop.  After her father became disabled by gout, Sirani had to support her three siblings and her parents by selling her artwork.  The stress she was under is most likely what caused her early death.

Elisabetta Sirani was born in Bologna, in 1638.  Her father was the renowned artist Giovanni Sirani.  Elisabetta, like most other female artists of that era, learned her artistry from her father, even though her father was against her becoming a painter.  Sirani spent all of her life in Bologna, the city most famous for it's women's rights, and for producing  many successful female artists of that era.

She quickly became known for her talent and ability to paint a beautiful masterpiece very quickly.  As word spread throughout the country of how rapidly she could paint a masterpiece, many art lovers would come to her studio from all over Italy for a chance to watch her work.  Sirani's portraits, mythological subjects, and her works of the Holy Family and the "Virgin and Child", brought her great international fame.  Her paintings were sought after by the noble, wealthy, and royal patrons, such as the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.

Sirani's etchings of religious scenes were highly praised by the church who quickly commissioned her to paint "The Baptism of Christ" for the church of the Certosini.  In 1664, she was commissioned by Prince Leopold of Tuscany to paint his portrait, and the Crown Prince of Tuscany commissioned her to paint a Madonna.  

One of the most interesting facts about Sirani is that she had her own art studio, and opened an art school, for other women artists, which included her two sisters.  She opened this school when she was just fourteen years old.   The interesting fact about this art school is that she didn't become an established artist herself until she was seventeen.  This shows that she was very mature at the young age of fourteen, much more mature than today's fourteen year olds.  This was a major accomplishment for women artists, due to the fact that in the 17th century there were very few, if any, art schools designed specifically to train young female artists. 

Sirani was more than just a painter.  She was also a musician and wrote beautiful poetry.  Most of her artwork, whether it was poetry, music or painting, centered on historical and religious scenes.  One of Sirani's most talked about and famous paintings is titled "Portia Wounding Her Thigh", which she painting in 1664.  The story line of this painting is of a scene from Julius Caesar as told by Shakespeare.   Portia, who was the wife of Brutus, is trying to prove to her husband that she is worthy of his confidence in her.  By wounding her thigh, she is testing her character.  In this painting, Sirani, showed a female hero who tested herself against what was predominantly a trait that was associated with men; meaning that, she had the ability and was willing to endure great physical pain to prove her courage.  This was a commissioned work, in which Sirani chose the theme.  This piece contributed to making Sirani one of the most famous women painters to come out of Bologna.

In 1665, at the age of twenty-seven after suffering with severe stomach pains, Elisabetta Sirani suddenly died.  It is believed that she was poisoned by a jealous maid.  The maid was tried and acquitted of any wrong doing.  An autopsy proved her innocence when numerous lacerations in Sirani's stomach showed evidence of perforated ulcers.  A large public funeral was held with a very distinguished crowd paying tribute to Sirani and her works.  The Dominican Church in which her funeral was held was beautifully decorated, and a temple of fame was erected in her honor.  She was highly praised in her eulogy.  Sirani was laid to rest in her father's tomb.

In addition to her many artworks left behind, Sirani left an important legacy through her teaching.  Her pupils included, Barbara and Anna Maria, her two sisters, and more than two dozen other young women, some of whom became professional painters.

Sirani had completed over ninety works by 1655 and at least eighty more by the time she died. Sadly, none of her portraits survive to the present day, though many of her religious or mythological works are still in tact.

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here

Source: Bologna and the Arts. 1st ed. : Humes Publishing, 1971.