Josefa's portraits were highly praised by the people of her era. Unfortunately very few of her works have survived. The greatest one is of a mystical vision of an angel in the Santa Casa da Misericordia church. With the setting of this painting being in London, it proves that one of Josefa's first admirers was James Cavanaugh Murphy, who described the great Cistercian Abbey of Alcobaca in his Travels in Portugal book, wrote this,

"There is one portrait here, painted by a Portuguese lady named Josefa, that is worth the whole collection".

Josefa de Obidos  (Josefa de Ayala) was born in 1630 in Seville, Spain. She was a painter and engraver, who was taught her artistic skills by her father the Portuguese painter Baltazar Gomes Figueira.

The family moved to Coimbra, Portugal in 1640, where Josefa began her apprenticeship under her father, who was a painter of landscapes, still-lifes and religious works.

Her first known work was an engraving of Saint Catharine in 1647. It was a painting on copper titled "The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catharine". Despite the crude lighting and delicate figures, she revealed her promise as a painter who worked with oils. The painting on copper Josefa made in 1653 of Saint Mary Magdalene,  has a distinct quality that resembles the work of Flemish artists such as Daniel Seghers. Her work as an engraver includes the allegorical figure of knowledge for the ornamental facade of the Estatutos da Universidade de Coimbra.

In 1654 Josefa moved to Obidos with her family, where she had refined her technique as a religious painter Soon after moving to Obidos, Josefa de Figueira changed her name to Josefa de Obidos.

Her work titled "Pentecost" was said to be breath taking and beautiful.  The precision and delicateness of the brushwork used in "Pentecost", was what made it one of her better works, along with works titled "Virgin and Child", and "Saint Joseph". The retable in the chapel of Saint Catharine, in Obidos, is one example of her work that remains in it's original position, and, is framed by carved and gilded wood surrounded by handmade tiles. It houses five canvases notable for their warm coloring and natural style. In 1673 Josefa painted a series on the Life of Saint Teresa for the Carmelite convent in Cascais, Portugal.

Much of Josefa’s works can be related to the Spanish style of painting of that era. This is evident in her still-lifes, that were largely influenced by Francisco de Zurbarán, she would use his method for of scattered flowers, colorful ribbons or elaborate containers. Her intricate detail and her bright colors are clearly noticeable in her "Still-life with Fruit and Flowers", which shows a Baroque style bowl with a ornamental border typical of Portuguese silver products made in the late 17th century.

Her works often combine religious and nonreligious subjects in a setting of sensuality and mysticism. The "Christ Child as Savior of the World" Josefa made in 1673, portrays the Christ child as a clothed statue that has a wreath of flowers.  The influence of Zurbarán is evident in this work also, and suggests that Josefa used many of his styles. She knew his style well, due to the fact several of his paintings were found at her fathers home after his death, therefore she had ample opportunity to study his works over the years.  Zurbarán's influence is apparent in many of Josefa’s religious paintings, primarily in the brightness of the whites and creams and in the style of faces and in the textiles. Noteworthy examples include works such as:

These paintings expressed her religious reverence, and her deep sense of mysticism.  She made several versions of the "Agnus Dei" theme, in which the Paschal Lamb¹ borrows styles from many of  Zurbarán works.

Out of all of Josefa’s portraits, which were highly praised by her contemporaries, only one survived, "The Fine Psychological Study of Faustino Das Neves".

Josefa never married, however, she owned many properties, and was what we would consider a landlord.

During her life time, Ayala was sufficiently well-regarded as an artist and was elected to the Lisbon Academy.

She died in Obidos in April 1684, after living a very full and rewarding life.

After doing research on Josefa, I wish more of her works had survived through the years. She truly seems like a talented artists who's works reflected styles of many other artists, along with her own unique style.


¹ A figure of a lamb; emblematic of Christ.

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here

Source: The History of Portuguese Art:. : Shoolman & Slatkin, 1944.

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