The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance is a free exhibition at the National Gallery. Open from 16 March to 11 June 2023, it sheds new light on Quinten Massys’s An Old Woman (about 1513).
Also known as Metsys, Quinten Massys (1465/6–1530) was born in the university town of Leuven in Belgium. He was documented by 1491 as a master craftsman in Antwerp; then the bustling, cosmopolitan trading capital of northern Europe. The city was a centre for humanism, as well as an artistic hub. By the mid-sixteenth century, there was said to be twice as many painters and sculptors as bakers. In this competitive environment, Massys rose to prominence pioneering new subjects for panel painting beyond the traditional realms of portraiture and religious scenes that he also practised.
Alice in Wonderland
Defying Western canons of beauty, this arresting figure became known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’ after she inspired John Tenniel’s hugely popular illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). For this reason, in the British imagination, she is forever tied to the fairy tale world. (Most of us recognize the painting but few could tell you who painted it.)
In the book Alice has an unwelcome encounter with the Duchess, whom she initially finds repellent and tries to avoid; first, because the Duchess was very ugly; and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin upon Alice’s shoulder, and it was an uncomfortably sharp chin.
Massys’s painting entered the National Gallery after the war in 1947 as the bequest of Jenny Louisa Roberta Blaker. She was the sister of the museum curator and art dealer Robert Blaker, in whose memory it was given. (She also bequeathed a Modigliani to the Tate). It quickly became a celebrated Gallery painting and has always been known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’, a subtitle it still retains.
The exhibition moves away from the painting’s Victorian world of fairytale to focus on its original Renaissance context. Quinten Massys pioneered secular and satirical art and this work captures the emergence of the grotesque as a subject for painting. (In the original sense of the word, grotesque denotes the surprising, extraordinary and comical.)
The exhibition shows that An Old Woman belongs to a broader visual tradition that derided and vilified older women. The figure of the foolish hag with a horned headdress was a well-known folkloric type.
Beyond the obvious misogyny, these works show that older women afforded Renaissance artists a space that conventional beauty did not allow as their unruly bodies were metaphors for social disorder.
Further examples include the grimacing and pitiful maiolica Bust of an Old Woman (about 1490–1510), lent by the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Albrecht Dürer’s iconic and fearsome Witch Riding Backward on a Goat (about 1500).
Italian maiolica (tin-glazed pottery) frequently featured belle donne (beautiful women). This bust is exceptional for doing the exact opposite. The contrast between her eye-catching garment and her despondent stance (hunched shoulders, bowed head and toothless smile) is meant to make you chuckle.
As the earliest known depiction of the witch as a hag, this engraving marks a turning point in the demonisation of older women during the Renaissance.
Her nudity, the phallic broom between her legs, and her suggestive grasp of the goat’s horn signal her unchecked sexuality. Moral order is upended. She is unapologetic, fearsome and powerful.
This seated figure is a direct descendent of Dürer’s witch, but here the old woman has been stripped of her powers. Frail, vulnerable, and shivering, she crosses her arms to hide her nakedness in a parody of exalted classical nudes. But to see it here is more exciting that the standard restrictions of beauty.
A Grotesque Couple
Massys did not conceive The Ugly Duchess in isolation but as one half of a pair.
Following its recent cleaning, An Old Woman is reunited in this exhibition with An Old Man, plus what must be the one-to-one scale preparatory study in oil on paper for the latter in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.
The two works have only been shown together once in their history, in the Renaissance Faces exhibition held 15 years ago at the National Gallery.
Her old-fashioned outfit is luxurious and provocative in the hope of seducing the old man. (Even in the 1510s, her monumental headpiece would have been considered out-of-date and ridiculous.) She offers him a rosebud as a token of love, but his raised hand seems to indicate rebuke.
Viewers are invited to laugh at her vanity, lust and self-delusion. Old women’s lust was a common source of humour in Renaissance times.
Who Are They?
There has been speculation that the artist depicted a woman with Paget’s disease – a rare illness causing bone hypertrophy. Yet rather than painted from life, she was more probably a fictional folkloric character.
In presenting such figures of fun as elaborate portraits, Massys’s satirical pair parodied the dignified genre.
Although Gossaert did not flatter the sitters (see below), he followed decorum: the wife’s bosom is covered and her eyes are modestly cast downwards. She stands behind her husband, and crucially to his left – the less prestigious side occupied by women in double portraits. ‘The Ugly Duchess’ upsets all these conventions.
Painted by Massys after ‘The Ugly Duchess’, An Old Woman (below) shows a woman who belongs to low society. The woman’s grin and covetous sideways glance suggest she too may once have had a male pendant.
Massys also drew from satirical engravings featuring unequal lovers, such as Israhel van Meckenem’s The Ill-Matched Couple (about 1480–90) which is also on display here. Unequal love was a staple theme of Renaissance secular imagery that featured lecherous old people consorting with acquisitive youths.
This engraving (below) is one of the earliest treatments of this theme, and a rare example involving an old woman and a young man rather than the opposite pairing. While their longing gazes hint at romance, the interplay of their hands around the bag of coins apparently reveals the transactional nature of the relationship.
While I agree she is an older woman, I think it’s hard to presume the age of the male figure. Without the curator’s notes, I may have thought this was a long-together old couple caring for their money.
Leonardo da Vinci makes a surprising cameo in the exhibition. For the first time ever, An OId Woman is displayed with two related drawings after Leonardo da Vinci that show the same unmistakable face. These have been generously loaned by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection and the New York Public Library.
The drawings are small so it’s a delight to be able to study them up close here. Seeing these displayed next to Massys’s paintings makes it clear that Leonardo’s grotesques were the inspiration.
A small group of sheets by Leonardo and his followers further illustrates the two artists’ shared interest in the comic, expressive and subversive potential of distorting the human face. But Massys did not simply copy as Leonardo’s pieces are small while Massys preferred large compositions.
In Leonardo’s sketch below, the familiar type of the old woman in an outlandish and outdated costume reappears. Her face daringly foreshortened, she turns toward a grinning man. The exact nature of their interaction is unclear: he seems to offer her a flower or a ring – a token of love that mimics youthful courtship. It’s a classic example of Leonardo poking fun at amorous old people.
Leonardo’s humorous profiles were very popular and the figure of the old woman with a horned headdress and low neckline was a mainstay of Leonardo’s grotesques. The figure centre-left below has a carnation provocatively tucked in her cleavage. This is rather like the drooping rosebud held by Massys’s old woman.
You may think from the amount I have said here that this is an extensive exhibition. It’s not. It is only one room. Room 46 is used for special focus exhibitions and this one is a real delight. All of the pieces have been displayed so you can look closely. And it’s absolutely fine to laugh.
Title: The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance
Dates: 16 March – 11 June 2023
Location: Room 46, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
Do note, the National Gallery is undergoing quite a transformation at the moment. The Sainsbury Wing is closed and the landmark Portico Entrance is under wraps during renovation work for the bicentenary next year.