Strange and Unusual Portrait by Fontana

Yesterday I came across the strangest portrait I have ever seen. Take a look at Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (also written as “Gonzales,” c. 1595, on left). At first, I didn’t know what to make of this painting. Was it a joke? Why would young girl be depicted with a hairy face?

This is no joke, my friends. In fact, it’s a rather unusual story. Antonietta Gonzalez (as well as her father, two sisters and other family members) had hypertrichosis (also commonly called “werewolf syndrome”). This is a rare genetic disorder which causes an abnormal amount of hair on the body. (You can read more about the disorder and see some interesting images here.) Antonietta’s father, Pedro (sometimes written as Pedrus) Gonzalez, was the first known person to be affected with this disorder. Given the rarity of the disease, it seems a little surprising that so many people within the Gonzalez family were affected by hypertrichosis. One writer noted that in terms of pathology, “the Gonzales sisters were one in a billion – all three of them.”1

Luckily, though, Antonietta and her sisters were not shunned by society, but welcomed into the courts of Europe. Although I’m sure that these girls served as objects of curiosity to some degree, they also were subject to medical investigations and, obviously, portrait sittings. Antonietta explains a little of her personal history in the handwritten note which she holds in the portrait: “Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.”2

Historian Merry Weisner-Hanks has speculated that Lavinia Fontana met Antonietta in Parma. I hope to find more information about the portrait in The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their World a relatively new book by Weisner-Hanks. It looks really interesting.

Okay, so here’s my question: do you know of a portrait more unusual or strange than this one? Let’s make it a little game; I’m curious to see what people might submit. And I’ll let you, dear readers, decide what constitutes “unusual” or “strange” (e.g. the sitter, the artistic presentation of the sitter, the medium, etc.).

P.S. As I was finishing up this post, my two-year-old looked at the Fontana portrait and said, “Hey, is that you?” Ha ha! I didn’t realize that I was having such a bad hair day!

1 Jason Zasky, “Hair Apparent,” in Failure Magazine (n.d.), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).

2 Merry Weisner-Hanks, “Hairy Marvels and Beastly Sex,” in National Sexuality Resource Center (1 October 2009), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).

  • H Niyazi says:

    Great post M! I've always been intrigued by that Fontana work.

    My submission for a 'weird portrait' is US conceptual artist Michael Hussar's "Hans Memling" – partly an homage, partly a portrait, Hussar depicts Memling as a martyred nun. I really love the period frame he made as well.

    minor graphical warning, don't click if you're a queasy type!


  • ArtCounsel says:

    There is a great book on this genre of painting. "A foul and pestilent congregation : images of "freaks" in Baroque art" by Barry Wind

  • susan benford says:

    Another fascinating post!

    When I was young, I was terrified of Delacroix's "Madwoman with a Mania of Envy". That, I now see, pales in comparison to this Fontana portrait.

    Meanwhile… sounds like your two year old has a delightful sense of humor!

  • Woodwose says:

    Piebald child, Marie-Sabina who was born October 12, 1736 at Matuna, a plantation belonging to the Jesuits in the City of Cartegena in America of two Negro slaves named Martianiano and Patrona. Painting by unknown Columbian artist. Painting was engraved by George Leclerc Buffon in Histoire naturelle generale et particuliere.

  • e says:

    How incredibly interesting. It makes me wonder about other pieces of art out there that are of people with various abnormalities (unfortunately I know of none). I wonder if there are any sculptures?

  • M says:

    I love the suggestions that people gave! (And thanks for the book recommendation, ArtCounsel! I've added the book to my "To Read" list. It looks really interesting!)

    H Niyazi: Wow! I think you might have to take the prize. The shock value for Hussar's piece (and also the subject matter) is definitely "strange" and "unusual" (to say the least!). I actually have never heard about Hussar before – it was interesting to become a little familiar with his work.

    Susan, I hoped that someone would mention Delacroix! I think his series of insane/mad/mentally disturbed people is very interesting, even from a medical point of view. And the subject matter is so perfect for a Romantic painter, don't you think?

    Woodwose, thanks for your comment! I loved your Columbian artist example. This was especially fun for me to see, since I'm familiar with similar paintings that were produced in "Natural History" books for Brazilian people. When I was in graduate school, part of my work involved an analysis of paintings by Johann Moritz Rugendas, a 19th century painter who completed ethnographic studies of people in Brazil.

    Your example also reminded me of Albert Eckhout, a Dutch painter from the 17th century. Eckhout also was interested in capturing portraits of the native people within Brazil. His Tapuia Woman (1641) has a shock factor with the reference to cannibalism!

    e: I loved your question! I don't know of many portraits of disabled people (I'm sure that several exist), but I am familiar with Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005). Lapper is an English artist who was born without arms and stunted legs. This statue caused quite a bit of controversy when it was placed in Trafalgar Square (London). I think it's really interesting, especially from a historical perspective. Western culture reveres so many broken sculptures from antiquity that are missing limbs and appendages – and I think Quinn's sculpture can be seen as an ironic commentary on Western artistic standards. I really like the idea behind the sculpture though – I think it's great to celebrate a less-than-perfect human form in a monumental sculpture.

  • susan benford says:

    One portrait of a disfigured person is Jusepe de Ribera, The Club-Footed Boy (1642, in the Louvre…

    But it doesn't top Fontana's!


  • allyoutouch says:

    Great post!! A favorite portrait of mine is Isabella Blow by Noble and Webster, made up by taxidermy (including birds, a rat and a snake)

  • e says:

    I LOVE the example you gave. It's quite neat that there is sculpture that exists for people with disabilities. "Alison Lapper Pregnant" is quite beautiful.

    I also loved your point on the irony that people would react controversial to such art. Really neat post.

  • M says:

    Susan, I completely forgot about Boy with a Club Foot (1642). Great example of a disfigured person. It's similar to the Quinn sculpture that I mentioned, in that the artist conveys the subject with pride and dignity. The little boy is so cheerful and confidant; I really like this approach to portraying a disfigured person – there isn't any "patronizing sympathy" (as it says in the link above), but a celebration of life.

    allyoutouch: Thanks for your comment! (And welcome to my blog – I don't believe that you have commented before.) I've never seen the Isabella Blow portrait – how cool! I especially love that the medium for the work of art is two-fold: it includes the unusual taxidermy, but the portrait is also realized in its shadow. What a neat idea. Thanks for sharing.

    e, I'm glad you liked the example! I thought you'd find it interesting. 🙂

  • M says:

    CORRECTION: I just realized while going over these comments that Susan (and I) meant to refer to the series of insane people by GERICAULT (not Delacroix, although he is another fantastic Romantic painter).

    I should have caught that error sooner…

  • dfriggieri says:

    Francis Bacon considered Velasquez (1599-1660)“an amazingly mysterious painter”. To broaden (and possibly deepen) the subject of these posts I would also like to suggest reflecting on Velasquez’s renderings of his metaphysically baffling dwarfs (Sebastian de Morra, Francisco Lezcano and others), the royals (King Philip IV) and his family (Las Meninas.

  • M says:

    dfriggieri: Thanks for your comment! I agree with you: the Velasquez dwarfs are great examples to add to this discussion. Velasquez was definitely interested in depicting dwarves, since they pop up several of his paintings. For any readers who are not familiar with the dwarves in Velasquez' paintings, here is just one example: Court Dwarf Don Antonio el Inglés (c. 1640-42).

  • dfriggieri says:

    "The dwarf Seneb and his family" is a small Egyptian painted limestone statue from 2475 BC. Dwarfs were highly regarded and Seneb was head of the pharaoh's textile works. Note the following: 1. children stand in place of the legs. 2. men and boys used to spend time outdoors (hence tanned) whereas women and girls stayed indoors (hence pale). 3. children depicted naked with a customary finger in the mouth (artistic convention). This week, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, (where this statuette is exhibited), was attacked by looters!

  • Liam says:

    Very interesting. Ribera's "Bearded Woman" is similarly weird.

  • M says:

    Whoah, Liam! I was not familiar with that Ribera painting. Crazy! (The breast on that woman looks quite unrealistic, in my opinion, which makes the scene even more bizarre.)

    Thanks for sharing!

  • M says:

    I just came across another artist, Puerto Rican José Campeche, who also created a portrait of a malformed boy: The Child Juan Pantaleón Avilés. This work has been compared to Jusepe Ribera's paintings that others have mentioned here (which perhaps isn't surprising, since Campeche studied with the Spanish artist Luis Paret y Alcazar (while Alcazar was in political exile in Puerto Rico).

    It is thought that Campeche's painting (which is dated 1808, after the Enlightenment) was a little bit different in nature from Ribera's baroque paintings. Instead of highlighting the subject as a wonder of nature, this post-Enlightenment painting can be seen as an invitation for scientific study.

    For more information, see Joseph J. Rishel, "The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820," p. 473.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.