(Spanish, 1591 -1652)


A Desperate Woman (Tamar?)


Oil on canvas

33 7/8 x 29 3/4 inches

(86 x 75.6 cm)


Frederick J. Schwartz, Munich, 1982
Sale, Sotheby’s, New York, October 14, 1999, lot 126 (as Circle of Jusepe de Ribera: Young Woman Tearing Her Hair)



Nicola Spinosa, Ribera; l’opera completa, Naples 2003 p. 314; 2nd ed., Naples 2006, p. 343, as a workshop replica of the Bayonne painting


This powerful painting is a newly identified work from Ribera’s maturity.  Prior to its recent cleaning it had been considered (on the basis of photographs) a workshop replica of a painting in Bayonne (Musée Bonnat), one somewhat larger than the present work (103 x 84 cm) signed and dated “Jusepe de Ribera F. 1638.”  Like the present work, its subject has remained unidentified, although it had been conjectured that the “desperate woman” of the provisional title was a Biblical heroine.  A likely candidate would be Tamar, the daughter of King David, whose rape and humiliation by her half-brother Amnon is related in the second book of Samuel (13: 14-19):

But he would not hearken to her prayers, but being stronger overpowered her and lay with her. Then Ammon hated her with an exceeding great hatred: so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her before. And Ammon said to her: Arise, and get thee gone. She answered him: The evil which now thou dost against me, in driving me away, is greater than that which thou didst before. And he would not hearken to her: But calling the servants that ministered to him, he said: Thrust this woman out from me: and shut the door after her. And she was clothed with a long robe: for the king's daughters that were virgins, used such kind of garments. Then his servant thrust her out: and shut the door after her. And she put ashes on her head, and rent her long robe and laid her hands upon her head, and went on crying.[i]

Tissot:  Desolation of Tamar

Tissot: Desolation of Tamar


The unusual attributes of Ribera’s “Desperate Woman” correspond with the description of Tamar.  The subject of our painting is not only in tears, but her face is streaked with blood, evidence of a violent assault.  Her left hand pulls on her own hair as her right clutches the robe that is so brilliantly painted in an almost abstract pattern.   While there are several depictions of Amnon’s rape of Tamar in Baroque painting –such as those by Guercino (Washington, National Gallery of Art) andMolinari (Atlanta, High Museum), representations of Tamar alone after the rape are infrequently encountered.  Strikingly, James Joseph Tissot’s Desolation of Tamar of about 1900 (Jewish Museum, New York) portrays the subject in a near-identical pose, with her right arm clutching her robe across her chest, while she tears at her hair with her left hand, her elbow similarly extended.

Whether or not the painting indeed portrays Tamar, it is one of several representations of extreme human emotion and personal turmoil which Ribera treated throughout his career.  In style as well as subject it can be compared with paintings of the late 1630s, such as the Sense of Hearing of 1637 (Private Collection, U.K.) or the Old Usurer (Madrid, Museo del Prado) of 1638 (see illustrations above).   A dating in those years, roughly contemporary with the Bayonne painting, seems likely for our work.  In a written communication of December 6, 2015 Dr. Nicola Spinosa, who studied the painting in New York following its recent cleaning, has confirmed Ribera’s authorship and its date in the late 1630s.  In addition to the paintings cited above, he notes affinities with other paintings of the period, including the Astronomer in the Worcester Art Museum, the Mater Dolorosa at Kassel, the St. Paul the Hermit in the Walters Art Gallery, and the Prophets in the side chapel lunettes of the Church of the Certosa di San Martino in Naples.  Here, as in those, Ribera employs


a rigorous definition in naturalistic terms of forms and volumes, of highly charged physical features and accentuated expressions, of somber and pallid tonalities —all serving directly to convey the desperate and painful condition of the protagonist who has suffered through violence and violation.
— Dr. Nicola Spinosa

[i] The translation is from the Douai-Rheims translation of the Vulgate (1610).