Date of Creation:
La Mujer Barbuda
Hospital de Tavera
Hospital de Tavera
This is one case where pictures certainly speak louder than words, because as anyone can tell at a glance, Magdalena Ventura was far from a typical wife and mother: the unfortunate woman sports a beard even longer and more luxurious than that of her husband, who gazes forlornly at the viewer from the murky, shadowy background.
The stone tablet at the right of the picture bears a Latin inscription which tells us more about this unlikely trio: the inscription describes the "The Bearded lady of Abruzzi" as "a great wonder of nature" who bore her husband three sons before sprouting a bushy, undeniably masculine beard at the age of thirty-seven.
As the inscription helpfully points out, Magdalena's shock of facial hair "seems more like that of any bearded master than that of a woman who has borne three sons. "
This odd painting was commissioned in 1631 by the Duke of Alcalá, the Viceroy of Naples and one of Ribera's most faithful patrons. The Duke's painting collection reveals that the collector was rather fond of paintings of unusual subjects and especially of bizarre figures engaged in even stranger behaviors, and given Ribera's oeuvre, the painter had the same strange proclivities.
Characteristic of Ribera's style, as well as the style of the other major painters of the Spanish Baroque, is his careful attention to naturalistic detail. Note the precise, masterfully executed details such as the folds and stitches of Magdalena's simple outfit, her creased, utterly masculine face and the pained expression of her husband.
What differentiates Ribera's paintings of this type of subject matter, however, is the grave, even empathetic tone of the image. While many artists resorted to buffoonery and mockery in their depiction of these "freaks," Ribera, perhaps taking a page out of the dignified representations of low-life subjects by northern Italian artists like Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio, creates a painting utterly devoid of humor. The Bearded Woman is thus invested with a psychological depth that makes the painting more than just an inconsequential curiosity.
Magdalena's grave, resigned demeanor and the worried, forlorn expression of her husband make the viewer feel sympathy for the sitter, as opposed to disgust or amusement.
Use of technique:
Executed in 1631, The Bearded Woman was painted during the early, Caravaggesque phase of Ribera's style. This intense, dramatic tenebrism is particularly suited to grave, slightly sinister subject matter: Ribera was a master of creating a dark, ominous atmosphere through effects of light and shade, using the technique of chiaroscuro.
One of the underlying themes of The Bearded Woman is Ribera's attempt to subtly reinforce Magdalena's femininity. This is most strongly suggested by the exposure of her strange, Cyclops-like breast as she nurses a newborn infant.
By the time this painting was executed, Magdalena was fifty-two years old and her three sons were assuredly no longer breastfeeding; this baby is thus symbolic, serving to emphasis the fact that, despite her luxurious beard, the subject of this portrait is emphatically a woman.
This message is reinforced by the presence of a spool of thread and the head of a staff atop the stone slab to the right of the picture, both of which are symbols of domesticity and womanhood.
Ribera uses thick, defined to portray his subjects and fabrics. Every wrinkle and detail is precisely captured in this work.
There are deep psychological undertones of drama and emotion in this piece which has a moving intensity. The lighting adds to the intensity of the image and the influence of Caravaggio is evident here with the tenebrist style and remarkable darkness.
Goya was an avid fan of the aristocratic collections of Madrid and he makes reference to The Bearded Woman in a drawing that portrays The Bearded woman with a child in her arms and bears an inscription in Goya's hand: "This woman was painted in Naples by José Ribera Lo Spagnoletto around the 1640s."
Ribera's compatriot Juan Sánchez Cotán (most famous for his still-lifes), also tried his hand at this unlikely subject. La Barbuda de Peñarando is the portrait of The Bearded Brígada del Río who allegedly visited the court in Madrid in the 1590s.
Seventeenth century prints of bearded ladies also abounded in England. This sudden, unusual interest in hirsutism (a serious hormonal disorder which causes excessive hair growth in women, amongst other problems) was nothing out of the ordinary for the Baroque.
This artists and collectors of the period seem to have been virtually obsessed with the freakish, grotesque and bizarre: paintings of dwarves, buffoons, gluttons, and general immoral behavior and debauchery abound.
This love for the strange was apparently of a particularly dark strain in the Spanish artists: Ribera's paintings in particular were filled with abnormal personages, dark themes and sinister activities.
It was placed on deposit at the Royal Academy of San Fernando and featured in its catalogue from 1818 to 1829. Later, it was at last returned to the Medinaceli family and through inheritance it passed to the Lerma family, and was finally deposited in the Hospital Tavera in Toledo.
Jusepe de Ribera's paintings. The fact that Ribera was probably the most influential painter of the Spanish Baroque (even more influential than his far more famous compatriot, Velázquez) tends to be overshadowed by the fact that Ribera's often twisted, bizarre images have categorized the artist as a painter of the dark and bloody, and nothing more.
Without a doubt, Ribera was certainly intrigued by obscure and sinister subjects, and these paintings constitute some of his most powerful and influential images, like The Bearded Woman.
However, what many art enthusiasts do not know is that Ribera is much more than a mere painter of oddities. In fact, a closer look at Ribera's oeuvre reveals that the artist was as much a master of Baroque color, dynamism and grandeur as he was a master of Caraveggesque chiaroscuro and naturalism. Furthermore, Ribera's prints and paintings alike had an enormous impact on the development of Baroque art all over Europe.
Ribera may have been recognized as one of the most accomplished artists of the Baroque, but an utter dearth of contemporary documents or reliable sources concerning the artist's life and career meant that most of what was known about Ribera until the beginning of the 20th century was merely the stuff of legends.
Paradoxically, however, Ribera actually lived and worked in the Italian state of Naples for most of his life, stating that Spain was "a loving mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own sons. "
Living in Italy, Ribera had exposure to classical and Renaissance art, making his artistic education far broader than any other Spanish artist, and subsequently his art also had a major influence on the development of Italian Baroque art.
Ribera can nonetheless be qualified as a Spanish artist, however, because during the 17th century Naples was actually a Spanish territory; in fact, his major patrons were not Italians, but the governing Spanish class as well as Flemish merchants within the city.
Like the other major painters of the Spanish Baroque, the majority of Ribera's paintings are devoted to religious subjects: pictures of the Virgin and child, biblical scenes, and, perhaps most famously, often grisly, gruesome depictions of the martyrdom of the saints.
Unlike some of his compatriots, however, Ribera was not limited to religious paintings; his oeuvre also includes a fair number of mythological subjects, portraits, and even a series devoted to the five senses.
Furthermore, and most unusually for a Spanish artist, Ribera was quite adept at depicting the nude. This breadth of scope reveals the impact that living and working in Italy had on Ribera: the artist was free from the strict moral and social restrictions on art that existed in Spain, and was also exposed to a wider variety of influences, most notably classical art and masterpieces of the Renaissance.
To read more about Ribera and his artworks please refer to the recommended reading list below.
• Brown, Jonathan. Jusepe de Ribera: Prints and Drawings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973
• Darby, Delphine Fitz. "Ribera and the Blind Men. " The Art Bulletin 39.3 (Sept. 1957): 195-217.
• Felton, Craig, and William Jordan, Eds. Jusepe de Ribera, lo Spagnoletto, 1591-1652. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1982
• Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso, et al. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992
• Piper, Anson. "Ribera's 'Jacob' and the Tragic Sense of Life. " Hispanica 46.2 (May 1963): 279-282
• Scholz-Hänsel, Michael. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. Cologne: Könemann, 2000
• Trapier, Elizabeth du Gué. Ribera. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1952
• Wind, Barry. "A foul and pestilent congregation:" Images of "freaks" in Baroque art. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing, 1998
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