The Wellcome Collection in London has acquired a 17th-century portrait of Barbara van Beck, a woman with an incredibly rare genetic condition that resulted in excessive hair covering her body. Dating to the 1640s, the oil painting depicts her in an elegant dress adorned with a red ribbon, gazing directly at the viewer. The tone of the portrait is overall one of dignity.
“It is most important to see this painting in the light of its own time and not anachronistically through the lens of the 19th-century ‘freak’ show,” Dr. Angela McShane, research development manager at the Wellcome Collection, told Hyperallergic. “While Barbara was certainly a celebrity because of her condition, she was able to live well, to travel, and to make a good living from meeting people who were as much in awe of her condition and her intelligence as they were of the wonders of God’s world.”
Born Barbara Ursler in 1629 near Augsburg, Bavaria, she later married Johan Michael van Beck of the Netherlands, with whom she had one child (who did not inherit her condition). Her husband served as her manager, and together they traveled around Europe, including visiting famed figures like English writer John Evelyn who declared that her hair was “thick and even as growes on any womans head.” Barbara van Beck probably had hypertrichosis, a syndrome with only around 50 documented cases since the Middle Ages.
Van Beck gained her 17th-century fame from her appearance, yet she was also celebrated for her harpsichord playing and knowledge of several languages. Contemporary etchings, such as the five examples already in the Wellcome Collection, show her as a high-class lady. Compare this to the 19th century, when P. T. Barnum displayed Fedor Jeftichew, aka “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy,” who likewise had a condition of excessive hair. In Barnum’s sideshow he was presented as a savage creature, expected to bark and growl at spectators.
“The biographical information we have demonstrates that Barbara was accustomed to meeting with well-heeled members of society and the oil painting itself portrays her in a highly dignified fashion,” McShane stated. “She wears an extremely expensive gown of the highest fashion, made of silk and fine Holland lace. The low cut of her dress was all the rage at this time and most high-class women at court would have been similarly attired. The style was intended to emphasize a woman’s beauty in classical style — with Venus-like breasts — and fecundity.”
Starting in early 2018, the portrait of Barbara van Beck will be on view at the Wellcome Collection, and next fall it will be featured in a conference there on the “Culture of Beauty.” The Wellcome’s museum and library have extensive collections on medicine and health, and the social and cultural histories of these areas. As with the rare oil portrait of van Beck, the paintings, prints, and drawings from across centuries highlight how individuals have lived with health conditions.
“There’s so much about this work that we don’t know,” McShane said. “By making it available to a wider audience, and available for further research, we hope not just to further our understanding of the very different social, cultural, and medical context of this period, but also to challenge ourselves to think differently about our own attitudes towards life, health, and our place in the world.”