Barbara van Beck. Oil painting, ca. 1650.

[approximately 1650]
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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

Related material

Three other 17th-century portrait paintings of hirsute women exist in other collections: 1. Brígida del Río, of Perñaranda, painted by Juan Sánchez Cotán in 1590. Spanish Royal collection from 1701; passed to the Prado. Canvas 102 x 61 cm. 2. Antonietta Gonzalez painted by Lavinia Fontana, 1590. Château de Blois. Canvas 57 x 46 cm. The hirsute Gonzalez family, originally from Tenerife, became courtiers of the Duke of Parma. There are also a number of depictions of Antonietta and members of her family in the cabinet of curiosities at Ambras Castle, Innsbruck, as a result of the collecting interests of the Archduke Ferdinand II. 3. Maddalena Ventura, her husband and child, painted by Jusepe de Ribera in Naples in 1631, commissioned by the viceroy of Naples and subsequently in Toledo (collection of the Duke of Lerma). Canvas 196 x 127 cm (lifesize). However, while Brígida del Río and Maddalena Ventura had beards, they did not have hair on other parts of their face, unlike Antonietta Gonzalez and Barbara van Beck


Wellcome Collection 3001072i

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)
Maggie Fergusson, 'All the art you’d pay not to own. Edward Brooke-Hitching's freakish gallery includes giant Olmec heads, cans of excrement, nightmarish prison scenes and a woman's face sprouting luxuriant hair', The spectator, 5 November 2022 (review of Edward Brooke-Hitching, The madman's gallery: the strangest paintings, sculptures and other curiosities from the history of art, 2022)

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

Exhibitions note

Exhibited in ‘Des Cheveux et des Poils’ at Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, 5 April - 17 September 2023

Where to find it

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