Josefa de Óbidos: Delectable Details

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets, flowers and cheese in a basket, signed and dated

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets, flowers and cheese in a basket, signed and dated “Josepha em Obidos 1676”, oil on canvas, Casa-Museu Anselmo Braamcamp Freire, Santarém (detail)

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets and pottery, signed and dated

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with sweets and pottery, signed and dated “Josepha em Obidos 1676”, oil on canvas, Casa-Museu Anselmo Braamcamp Freire, Santarém (detail)

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Three weeks ago, I had the chance to see the Josefa de Óbidos exhibition at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. It was exactly the kind of exhibition that I hoped to see this museum organize: subtitled “The Invention of the Portuguese Baroque”, it showcases the unique and extraordinary case of a female professional painter, that managed to surpass the narrow local confines of the province she worked in and build a very successful career, with important official commissions for churches, as well as a remarkable series of still life painting. Signing proudly her paintings with her name and the town she lived in (Óbidos), Josefa de Ayala took over the workshop where she had worked alongside her father, the Seville-trained painter Baltazar Gomes Figueira, and continued producing the still lifes that became a kind of brand.

Baltazar Gomes Figueira or Josefa de Ayala, Still life with cakes, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu de Évora (detail)

Baltazar Gomes Figueira or Josefa de Ayala, Still life with cakes, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu de Évora (detail)

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Baltazar Gomes Figueira - Josefa de Ayala, The month of June, c. 1668, oil on canvas, Private collection

Baltazar Gomes Figueira – Josefa de Ayala, The month of June, c. 1668, oil on canvas, Private collection (detail)

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Curated by the tireless team of the MNAA, headed by the brilliant Joaquim Oliveira Caetano, the exhibition is beautifully and comprehensively hung, with rooms organized thematically that allow the visitor to fully appreciate the production of Josefa, the joint production of still life painting by her and her father (one of the most enlightening sections), as well as the production of the workshop. In many cases, the hanging invites the stylistic comparisons that normally help art historians clear attributions, but some paintings are remarkably similar, and we probably shall never be able to distinguish their authors. The exhibition also profits immensely from the juxtaposition of similarly themed paintings from public museums and private collections, revealing how popular Josefa is, and has been, with collectors.

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and pears, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and pears, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (detail)

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Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and grapes, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Private collection

Josefa de Ayala, Still life with watermelon and grapes, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Private collection (detail)

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I have only one mild criticism, since I would have preferred to see the two sections, on Spanish seventeenth-century still life painting, and the Portuguese decorative arts, integrated with the rest of the exhibition, as opposed to being artificially separated. This does not facilitate the otherwise convincing points about the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese still life, and the importance of the decorative arts in the Portuguese context – certainly more important than the traditionally defined as “fine arts”. The hanging of the Francisco de Zurbarán paintings that adorn the exhibition, on the other hand, was far more successful in underlying the points of contact and the stylistic affinities between the two painters.

Josefa de Ayala, Pentecost, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra (detail)

Josefa de Ayala, Pentecost, c. 1660-1670, oil on canvas, Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra (detail)

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Francisco de Zurbarán, Jesus of the thorn, oil on canvas, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (detail)

Francisco de Zurbarán, Jesus of the thorn, oil on canvas, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (detail)

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Imagine, then, my surprise when, midway through this hugely satisfying exhibition, I came across its real revelation: Manuel de Sousa, or Frei Cipriano da Cruz, as he is more widely known, the Benedictine monk and sculptor, part of whose artistic activity coincides with that of Josefa’s. While Josefa’s attractions are rather obvious, Baroque wooden, painted sculpture is neither the most popular art form, nor exactly well known – outside the realm of specialists, or perhaps even believers who know works in small, provincial churches that the greater public ignores. Cipriano’s works though are unqualified masterpieces and they deserve wider acclaim. Their level of quality is simply astounding – albeit difficult to transmit through standard reproductions.

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Luís de Oliveira (painter gilder), St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1691-1692, polychromed chestnut wood, gilded and upholstered, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade de Coimbra (detail)

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Luís de Oliveira (painter gilder), St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1691-1692, polychromed chestnut wood, gilded and upholstered, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade de Coimbra (detail)

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Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Pascoal de Sousa (painter), St. Gregory the Great, 1685-1692, polychromed wood, gilded and upholstered, Capela do Cemitério de São Paio de Gramaços (detail)

Frei Cipriano da Cruz (sculptor), Pascoal de Sousa (painter), St. Gregory the Great, 1685-1692, polychromed wood, gilded and upholstered, Capela do Cemitério de São Paio de Gramaços (detail)

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.The lavish attention to texture and surface detail, the craftsmanship, and meticulous execution of intricate floral patterns should be considered as typical of the period’s sculpture, that eschews the canonical material of Italian sculpture (marble), and should be appreciated within an entirely different tradition, Iberian as well as Portuguese. It is time to let the world know.

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(photos © Foteini Vlachou)

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