The is one of the most striking faces in the National Gallery’s collection. A protruding forehead, eyes sunk deep in their sockets, a raised nose, wide nostrils, a hairy mole, a toothless mouth, a crumpled neck: the unmistakable features of the old woman known as “the ugly duchess” defy all conventional canons of beauty.
Her outfit, especially her jeweled horned headdress, is sumptuous. Little concerned with the decorum expected of elderly women of Renaissance Europe, she chose a tightly laced blue dress that emphasizes her crumpled neckline. But, as beautiful as her clothes were, by the time this panel was painted her outfit would have looked ridiculously outdated – clothes were all the rage in her youth, but by 1510 her outfit would have made the Keeper look ridiculous. rather than high fashion.
The old woman wears this elaborate garment in the hope of attracting a suitor. It used to be self-explanatory. The painting has a pendant: a panel depicting an old man now in a private collection. Turned to her companion, the old woman offers him a rosebud – a token of love, which he firmly refuses. Sixteenth-century viewers were invited to laugh at her self-delusion, but she seems perfectly unfazed by this rebuttal. Today, her challenge can inspire empathy or even admiration.
Together, the two provided a parody on the established genre of the double portrait, poking fun at those who behave in a manner deemed unsuitable for their age.
Quentin Massys, the Dutch artist who painted this work, was one of the Renaissance artists who pioneered the development of secular and satirical art. Massys shared his interest in the bizarre with his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, who also did many studies on grotesque heads. The common interest of the two artists for the expressive power of the human face led them to exchange drawings.
The sitter earned the nickname “ugly duchess” in the 17th century when she was mistakenly identified with Margaret Maultasch, Duchess of Carinthia and Countess of Tyrol, hailed by her enemies as the “ugliest woman in history” .
Two hundred years later, John Tenniel used this image or one of its many versions as the basis for his portrayal of the Duchess in his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thereby enshrining the image in the British imagination. The portrait will soon be on view at the V&A Museum in London, where it will be part of his exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser from May 22.
You can see more art from the National Gallery on Art UK here and find out more on the gallery’s website.