In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Josefa de Óbidos

  • Introduction
  • Monographs
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Works on Portuguese Art
  • Overview Essays
  • Primary Sources

Art History Josefa de Óbidos
Carmen Ripollés
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0177


Josefa de Ayala (b. Seville, 1630–d. Óbidos, 1684), commonly known as Josefa de Óbidos, is one of the few documented professional women artists of early modern Iberia, and arguably the most celebrated painter of the Portuguese baroque. She was the daughter of Baltazar Gomes Figueira, a Portuguese painter who was well known at the time for his still lifes and landscape backgrounds. Baltazar Gomes developed part of his career in Seville, where Josefa de Óbidos was born in 1630 (the painter Francisco Herrera the Elder was her godfather) and where she lived for an indeterminate number of years before 1646, when she signed and dated her first documented works, and only a few years after Portugal proclaimed its independence from Spain. Based in the Portuguese town of Óbidos from 1646 until her death in 1684, Josefa created engravings, small-format oil paintings on copper, large altarpieces for churches and monasteries, still lifes, portraits, and individual devotional paintings—an impressive variety of formats and subjects of which more than 100 works remain. Although she sometimes collaborated with her father, Josefa de Óbidos kept her own workshop after attaining the legal title of “donzela emancipada” (emancipated maidenba), which allowed for her independence. Her fame grew to mythical proportions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a number of biographers stressed her feminine piety and celibate isolation—she never married. For much of the twentieth century, scholars built on these romantic notions, emphasizing the presumed folk provincialism, use of surface decoration, and sentimental naiveté of her work. They also placed undue weight on her still lifes (now considered a small portion of her oeuvre) and on the presumed mysticism of her works, exaggerating the isolated context of Óbidos—in reality, a town with important links to the court. From the 1970s, and thanks to the pioneering work of Vítor Serrão, Luís de Moura Sobral, and Joaquim Oliveira Caetano in Portugal, and Edward J. Sullivan in the United States, as well as the invaluable contribution of a number of exhibitions, Josefa de Óbidos’s career and work have undergone a profound reassessment through rigorous archival research and the introduction of new approaches taking into account gender, global connections, and material culture. The painter is now seen as a defining player of the Portuguese baroque who engaged with artistic, religious, and political concerns of utmost currency in the Portuguese culture of her day, making her one of the most characteristic, prolific, and original artists of early modern Portugal, although scholarship outside of Portugal is still limited.


Since the early twentieth century, there have been significant monographs dedicated to Josefa de Óbidos, each bringing a unique perspective on the artist that reflects changes in scholarship and advancements in archival research. Costa 1931, despite limiting its focus to the artist’s engravings, still offers the most comprehensive analysis of the three known examples—two bust-length engravings of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Joseph from 1646 and an allegory of wisdom from 1653—and provides the only discussion of the existing copies. It also offers a close reading of Perym 1734–1740 (cited under Primary Sources) with insightful observations often forgotten in subsequent scholarship. Reis-Santos 1950 is the first serious attempt at examining the entirety of Josefa’s oeuvre from an objective and critical perspective, considering aspects such as her training under her father, the connection with painters of the Sevillian school such as Francisco Zurbarán and his follower Bernabé de Ayala (at that time thought to be her uncle), the evolution of her style, and her prominence within Portuguese painting of her time. Reis-Santos also brings to light the painter’s will and her only attributed and still accepted portrait, of Faustino das Neves. Written by a Spanish scholar, Hernández Díaz 1967 emphasizes the Spanish connection, even suggesting that the artist stayed in Seville much longer than her parents, and that she visited the city again later in her life. In contrast with these early monographs, Serrão 1985, by a prominent scholar on the artist and on Portuguese baroque art, introduces a more nuanced understanding of the Portuguese artistic context in connection to Josefa’s work, particularly through artists such as André Reinoso, himself little known until then, whose altarpiece of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia in Óbidos (1628) would have been known to Josefa. With the advantage of decades of new archival discoveries and methodological approaches, Pinto 2010 offers an up-to-date perspective on the artist, and while it does not contribute new documentary findings, it offers insightful observations on aspects of gender otherwise little discussed, such as how Josefa’s career relates to those of other early modern female artists, and aspects of her artistic identity, concluding that she was foremost a professional painter. Caetano 2019, the only monograph published in English, focuses on Josefa de Óbidos’s Reading the Fate of Christ Child (1667), a recently discovered high-quality small oil painting on copper that demonstrates the artist’s lifelong focus on this medium.

  • Caetano, Joaquim Oliveira. Reading the Fate of the Christ Child: New Masterpiece by Josefa de Ayala (1630–1684). Montevideo, Uruguay: Jaime Eguiguren, 2019.

    Excellent in-depth analysis of recently discovered painting on copper, on a rare subject that substantially expands our understanding of Josefa’s oeuvre, by a major specialist. Includes detailed stylistic and iconographic analysis, and an illuminating discussion of the literary, popular, and historical context informing this work. Despite the focus, it includes a succinct summary of her work and historiography as a whole, making it particularly valuable to English-speaking readers.

  • Costa, Luis Xavier da. Uma águafortista do século XVII (Josefa d’Ayala). Coimbra, Portugal: Imprensa da Universidade, 1931.

    The earliest monograph on the artist, focusing specifically on the engravings and offering their most comprehensive analysis to date. It includes insightful discussions of broader issues such as her training, her connections with the Spanish school, her critical fortunes, and a rare examination of her signatures. Includes a transcription of one of the earliest sources on the artist, also found in Trindade 1985 (cited under Primary Sources).

  • Hernández Díaz, José. Josefa de Ayala: Pintora ibérica del siglo XVII. Seville: Excmo. Ayuntamiento de Sevilla, 1967.

    Originally written in 1954 for an edited volume that was never published. Emphasizes the connections with the Spanish context.

  • Pinto, Carla Alferes. Josefa de Óbidos. Lisbon: Quidnovi, 2010.

    Brief, but very insightful, introduction to the artist, with many interesting suggestions not often discussed in other sources, and an unusual gender perspective emphasizing Josefa foremost as a professional artist. Profusely illustrated with high-quality color pictures. Includes useful chronology and very brief bibliography, and only punctual notes within the text.

  • Reis-Santos, Luís. Josefa d’Óbidos. Lisbon: Artis, 1950.

    First general monograph on the artist, by distinguished professor and former director of the Machado de Castro Museum in Coimbra. Offers the first substantial critical evaluation of her work. Includes a list of signed and dated works by Josefa, notes, and brief bibliography.

  • Serrão, Vítor. O essencial sobre Josefa de Óbidos. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moneda, 1985.

    Concise and highly informative overview written by major specialist. Includes discussions of Josefa de Óbidos’s critical fortunes, misattributions, connections to the Spanish and Portuguese artistic contexts, historical context, and analysis of specific artworks. Offers a balance between the exaggerated glorification of the artist in the eighteenth century and her dismissal in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Without illustrations or footnotes, with very brief bibliography.

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