Unfinished: The Inspired Life of Elisabetta Sirani

Written by Kelly Evans
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Unfinished tells the story of the remarkable 17th-century Italian painter Elisabetta Sirani, who became one of the greatest artists of her time but about whom little is known today. Elisabetta, the daughter of a prominent artist in Bologna, learns to paint from her father, who will not accept the fact that a woman can be as great an artist as a man. When a debilitating illness leaves him unable to hold a paintbrush, he puts her in charge of his studio but refuses to entrust her with the finances because he thinks that is a man’s responsibility. Elisabetta’s talent cannot be denied, and her art attracts noble and wealthy clients. Certain people doubt that a woman can create great art, so Elisabetta has to do demonstrations in front of an audience to prove that she really is the artist. Her fame soon takes its toll on her, physically and emotionally. Not to give away too much, but readers should not expect a happy ending.

Author Kelly Evans makes Elisabetta’s art come to life for the reader, and the novel is filled with details about her technique. Evans makes it easy for the reader to understand Elisabetta’s creative process. Elisabetta could envision her paintings almost as soon as the patrons described what they wanted and worked very quickly without sacrificing the quality of her work. The book is not illustrated, except for the cover, but Evans’s website includes reproductions of some of the paintings she writes about. I also enjoyed reading about Elisabetta’s sisters and the other female students in her art studio. None shared her genius, but they all supported her, and she encouraged them to pursue their art. This book, although a work of fiction, is a wonderful introduction to an artist who should be better known.