Besides being a strong, independently-minded woman back in the middle of the seventeenth century, Josefa de Óbidos (1630-84) over almost four decades created some of the most attractive and instantly recognisable paintings in the history of Portuguese art.
Fascinating for her artistic individuality, she was active during the years that followed the restoration of Portugal’s independence from sixty years of Spanish rule.
Born in Seville in neighbouring Spain, Josefa was the daughter of the renowned Portuguese painter Baltazar Gomes Figueira. He was from Óbidos in central Portugal and married her Spanish mother, Catarina de Ayala Camacho Cabrera Romero.
In 1634, when she was only four years old, Josefa’s parents left Spain and moved to Portugal, settling at the Quinta da Capeleira in Óbidos.
Right from an early age, Josefa showed a deep passion for painting and immediately started to specialise in painting flowers, fruit and inanimate objects.
Primarily a painter, she was also a miniaturist, etcher, terracotta modeller, silver-worker and calligrapher and was indeed an artist of extraordinary and varied talents, mostly working from her own a studio in the enchanting medieval walled town of Óbidos, from which she takes her name.
The great expansion of monastic churches that occurred brought a demand for retables and images that continued for generations, with a particular focus on pious scenes encircled by flower garlands adorning walls, ceilings and altars.
Starting as an etcher and a painter of small scenes on copper, Josefa quickly progressed to still-life paintings and religious scenes on canvas, eventually becoming a leading practitioner of this devout and ingenious genre.
Brightly coloured, exquisitely detailed and expertly designed, she managed to combine the festive with the religious, especially in scenes depicting the holy family.
Today, Josefa’s work can be seen in galleries and churches all over Portugal as well as abroad, including the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums in Seville and the Escorial Monastery near Madrid.
Emancipated and well educated, she was a woman whose faith reflected the spirituality of the 17th century, and she was certainly one of the most effective and authoritative exponents of the Baroque style of religious art in Portugal.
In 1653, at the tender age of 23, she was commissioned to produce an important engraving in Coimbra before being hired as a painter for many of Portugal’s most prestigious monuments, including the great monasteries of Alcobaça, Batalha and Évora. She also painted the portraits of some members of the Portuguese royal family.
Other outstanding examples of Josefa’s work can be seen in the church of Santa Maria in Óbidos (indicated on the map below), in a chapel to the right of the high altar, most notably an altar-piece depicting episodes from the life of St Catherine. At the top is the central panel of The Mystic Marriage (her spiritual betrothal to Christ), with smaller panels of St Teresa and St Francis on either side. Below is ‘St Catherine disputing with the Philosophers’ (who were sent to convert her by the Emperor) and on the right ‘The Destruction of the Wheel’ (on which she was to be tortured).
Josefa’s painting of Mary Magdalene being comforted by angels was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in January 2015 for US$269,000 to Filipe Mendes, a Portuguese descendant with an art gallery in Paris, who kindly donated it the Louvre Museum.
Her body rests in the church of São Pedro in Óbidos, the town she always called home and the place where she spent most of her life painting and teaching art.