There are paintings that make their viewers watch with awe and amazement, so much so that it’s hard for them to take their eyes away. Brilliant composition, captivating subjects, and distinct art styles are some of the ways of getting the coveted attention of the viewers.
But there is another way of capturing people’s attention: a shock factor. La Mujer Barbuda, Spanish for “The Bearded Woman” is a painting by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Rivera that shocks anyone who looks at it for the first time. But it is interesting to note that while the painting does have a shock factor, it captures the attention of the viewers for other reasons.
If you are wondering, yes, this is a painting of a real person. And what you are seeing is not actually happening in the painting. The person who is breastfeeding a child is actually a woman, despite a beard that can rival Darwin’s. Her name was Magdalena Ventura, and she was from Abruzzi, near Naples. Let’s start with the introduction.
The People in the Painting
The subject of the painting is the woman in the foreground. While she might look like a man, Magdalena Ventura was a biological woman. The man in the background is the husband of the bearded woman, and the child she is holding is her third child.
Ventura was a regular performer at the court, and one of her patrons was the Viceroy of Naples, Duke of Alcalá. It was the Duke who commissioned Ribera to make a painting of her so that her peculiar and interesting looks can be immortalized.
If you are familiar with prominent names in classic art, then a single look at the painting would have made you realize that the composition of this painting is very similar to that of Caravaggio’s artwork.
The attention to detail, the exact portrayal of the lighting, and dark contrasting colors—all of these elements show that this painting was a part of the Baroque movement, yet we see something strange. There is a hint of realism. The expression of the subjects which is very strikingly grave, is not accidental.
Baroque style usually adds something fantastical, something explosive and dramatic that captures the attention of the viewers. But this painting does the opposite; despite having a very interesting subject, it shows a simple and modest scene. Why?
The Artist’s Intent
Ribera wanted to show Magdalena the woman, not Magdalena the freak. Magdalena was not like this from birth. She did not have a beard until she was thirty-seven years old. So for her, to have something that took away her feminine trait would have been devastating.
She turned from a normal woman to a freak for the world. There is no doubt that the world would have treated her harshly, like an animal or an abomination. The artist had the chance to make a painting, showing her like a freak. This certainly would have made the painting very popular. But he chose not to.
Instead, Ribera makes the painting of this oddity with the colors of somber and deep emotions. It makes us look at the women not with disgust or awe, but with compassion and understanding. Ribera shows us the woman just like he saw her. A woman with a family and a life.
Look at the eyes of Ventura and her husband. You can see the realistic aspect of the painting when you understand what they go through everyday. Here’s a family trying to get by, raise their kids, and live a happy life. It is not her fault that she looks the way she does.
Ribera wanted to get this rawness in this painting. No embellishment, no eccentricness, no drama. Just a woman who has been treated like a freak, like an animal in a zoo. He wanted to show us their pain and suffering. And that’s what you get in this painting.
And when I say that she was being treated like a zoo animal, I was not exaggerating. Take a look at the epitaph on the right side. It has an inscription in Latin that translates to –
“The Bearded Lady of Abruzzi, a great wonder of nature who bore her husband three sons before sprouting a bushy, undeniably masculine beard at the age of thirty-seven.”
The epitaph continues further, stating that the beard on the woman is shocking as it makes her look more like a bearded master than a woman who has borne three sons.
Perhaps this painting can help people understand that the epitaph is not the description of the woman. She is not just a woman who grew a beard, but a woman with emotions, relations, and a life. Ribera perfectly captures this message in the painting and delivers it to the viewers.
About the Painting
The painting La Mujer Barbuda was completed in the year 1631 and it is an oil on canvas painting. The painting is currently in Toledo, Spain at the Hospital de Tavera.
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