A curious document was recently brought to light by G. de Vito on the execution of this painting, which was commissioned by the Viceroy D. Fernando Afán de Ribera y Enríquez (1570-1637), third Duke of Alcalá. In his correspondence, the ambassador to Venice reports a visit to the painter's workshop on 11 February 1631: «Nelle stanze del V.Re stava un pittore famosisimo faccendo un ritratto di una donna Abbruzzese maritata e madre di
molti figli, la quale ha la faccia totalmente virile, con piu di un
palmo di barba ñera bellisima, ed il petto tutto peloso, si prese gusto
su Eccellenzza di farmela veder, como cosa maravigliosa, et veramente é
The painting, as stated in the inscription , is dated five days later, on 16 February. It remained in the family collection, which successively became linked to the House of the Dukes of Medinaceli, to whom it belonged in 1808. Sent to Paris for the Napoleon museum, it was returned to Spain in 1813 and placed on deposit at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, in whose catalogue it features from 1818 to 1829. It was at last returned to the Medinaceli family and passed to that of Lerma through inheritance, being deposited in the Hospital Tavera in Toledo, the seat of the foundation by that name.
We know of the existence of a copy or replica in small format that is mentioned by Ponz and Ceán Bermúdez at the palace of La Granja. Another copy is quoted as being in the Ruiz de Alda collection in Madrid. In 1884 P. de Madrazo mistook this painting for the portrait of another bearded woman, Brígida del Río , who arrived at the Madrid court in 1590 and had her portrait painted by Sánchez Cotán.
The painting, which is superb and unique, is a special case in Ribera's output, and one of the most curious works in Spanish painting--and, indeed, in European art of the period.
Its documentary nature is evidenced both by what we know of its origin and by the lengthy, explicit inscription. However, the artist's mastery succeeds in transforming this abnormal and almost repulsive "clinical case" into a superb artwork that combines the beauty of the pictorial handling with an evident mysterious suggestiveness. The rich psychological undertones of the drama of the virilisation of the wife and the bitter resignation of the husband  are expressed here with a moving intensity.
Dated in 1631, it is executed in a fully tenebrist style that is strictly Caravaggesque: a dense, dramatic darkness from which emerge a series of significant elements of astounding intensity, emphasised by the light.
The thick, precise brushstrokes sharply model the forms and hint at the various materials with masterful virtuosity. They spare no wrinkle or deformity and translate the various fabrics  with admirable tactile precision. The small group of accessory elements placed on the stone block, in the manner of a significant array of still-life objects , no doubt hold a symbolic meaning: the spindle is a female attribute that alludes to domestic chores and some scholars regard the object beside it as a shell, a hermaphroditic symbol, but such an identification does not seem acceptable. The object bears more of a resemblance to a reel with woollen yarn: this would corroborate the sense of the femenine, which contrasts paradoxically with the women's masculine appearance. In addition to the painting's evident documentary value, which, as stated earlier, links it to the decidedly "proto-scientific" environment imbued with a certain analytical naturalism, it may also be intended to convey a deeper symbolic meaning.
The painting was well known in the 18th century and Goya, a frequent visitor to the aristocratic collections of Madrid, alludes to it in a drawing in an American private collection that also shows a 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"
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Alfonso E. P. Sánchez