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Barbara van Beck. Oil painting, ca. 1650.

[approximately 1650]
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Credit: Barbara van Beck. Oil painting, ca. 1650. Public Domain Mark

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About this work


Identified by comparison with 17th-century prints as a portrait of Barbara Ursler, born in Augsburg in 1629, portrayed half-length directed to right, with long brown prominent hair on the skin of her entire head. Names given to such conditions at various times include hypertrichosis, hirsutism and Ambras syndrome. She married a Dutchman, Johan Michael van Beck, who became her manager. Unlike the hirsute women who earned their living as courtiers alongside dwarfs and jesters, Barbara van Beck was exhibited internationally and became a celebrity through her travels. Her itinerary included London 1637 (where she was seen as a child by John Evelyn), Copenhagen 1639, Paris 1646, Rome 1647, Milan 1648, Augsburg 1653, Frankfurt 1655, London again 1657 (when she was seen again by Evelyn and portrayed playing the organ in an etching by Richard Gaywood), and Beauvais 1660. She disappears from the record in London in 1668, when she was seen by John Bullfinch, who wrote "This woman I saw in Ratcliffe Highway, in the year 1668, and was satisfied that she was a woman". (Ratcliffe Highway was the road later called The Highway, which links the City of London to Docklands.)


[Milan, Italy?], [approximately 1650]

Physical description

1 painting : oil on canvas ; canvas 70.5 x 50.5 cm

Creator/production credits

Attributed to an Italian artist, similar to Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri (Fossombrone 1589-1657 Pesaro) or a painter from Lombardy. The latter would fit Barbara van Beck's documented presence in Milan in 1648

References note

John Evelyn, Diary: now first printed in full from the manuscripts belonging to Mr. John Evelyn, edited by E. S. de Beer, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, vol. 3, pp. 197-198 (describes his viewing of Barbara van Beck, does not mention this painting: "Going to Lond. with some company, who would needes step in to see a famous rope-daunser call'd the Turk. ... to the admiration of all the spectators. I also saw the hairy maid, or woman wh(om) 20 years before I had also seene when a child: her very eyebrowes were combed upward, & all her forehead as thick & even as growes on any womans head, neately dress'd. There come also tw(o) lock(s) very long out of each eare. She had also a most prolix beard, & mustachios, with long locks of haire growing on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Island dog; the rest of her body not so hairy, yet exceeding long in comparison, armes, neck, breast & back; the colour of a bright browne, & fine as well dressed flax. She was now married, & told me had one child, that was not hairy, [as] nor were any of her parents or relations. She was borne at Ausburg in Germanie, & for the rest very well shaped, plaied well on the harpsichord &c. I returned home.")
Jan Bondeson, The pig-faced lady of Manchester Square & other medical marvels, Stroud 2004, chapter 2 'The hairy maid at the harpsichord', pp. 23-28, 63-68
Mark Albert Johnston, Beard fetish in early modern England: sex, gender, and registers of value, Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011, chapter 4, 'Re-evaluating bearded women', pp. 159-212 (does not mention this painting)


Wellcome Library no. 3001072i

Where to find it

  • Location Access
    On Exhibition
    Can't be requested


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