The work was sold jointly by Agnew’s and fellow London dealership Rafael Valls.
Barbara van Beck was most likely born with hypertrichosis (also known as Ambras syndrome) and this remarkable oil on canvas that dates from the 1640s is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of a person living with the condition.
Van Beck was orginally from Germany but she married Johan Michael van Beck from the Netherlands in c.1655. He became her ‘manager’ as she travelled extensively throughout Europe, becoming something of a celebrity.
John Evelyn recorded meeting her in London in his diary of 1657. He described her as a cultured woman who played beautifully on the harpsichord but had hair as “thick and even as growes on any womans head”.
The portrait of van Beck was probably painted in Italy and portrays the subject looking composed and wearing elegant clothes, rather than as a curiosity or freak. The Wellcome Collection already has five prints of van Beck in its holdings but this painting is the only known oil painting of the sitter.
Agnew’s said in a post on Instagram: “We couldn’t think of a better home for this painting than at the Wellcome Collection, with its dedication to fascinating and unusual artefacts exploring the connections between medicine life and art.”