The Ugly Duchess at the National Gallery Review: makes her laugh for the last time


The words ‘age inappropriate’ do not seem to have occurred to the grand old woman in Quinten Massys’ 1513 painting, dubbed ‘The Ugly Duchess’.

There she is, in a huge headdress that was frankly medieval to Renaissance eyes, her sagging breasts supported by her bodice. Her features are practically ape-like and there’s a most unseemly grin on her face as she fingers a tiny rosebud that points to the object of her affection, a dignified elderly man in the picture to her left – almost certainly destined to be with her to be seen like this A grotesque couple.

As the National Gallery points out, that position in a double portrait is reserved for the less powerful party, so here we have a reversal of the normal order of things. We should just laugh at this shady character, but I’m not sure we do. She’s so pleased with herself that it’s hard not to admire her instead.

This tiny exhibition – just five paintings, with some great drawings – aims to hint at Renaissance humor, which can be cruel and ugly with age. A culture obsessed with classical youth and beauty was superimposed on a medieval imagery that feasted on the grotesque and subversive.

The National Gallery

The great practitioner of this humor was Leonardo da Vinci, on whose work the Massys portrait is based. Here we find some wonderful little drawings, copies of Leonardo’s own old woman, and it is clear that Massys was simply following the master.

There are also a few nice sketches by Leonardo showing grotesque oldies: the men are unassuming, but the ladies are strikingly ugly.

Alongside the mockery of human vanity, there’s a strong message here about age-appropriate behavior. The standard character of fun has always been the mismatched old husband with a young wife: January and May.

Here we find another attitude, the wealthy old woman, as lustful as a man. But the interesting thing is that the stern old man whom the Duchess courts with a raised hand as if to say goodbye to the overture is not particularly repulsive, but neither is it memorably ugly. Both depictions testify to Massy’s brilliance as a portrait painter.

For British viewers, the afterlife of the ugly duchess will always be associated with Tenniel’s illustrations in Alice in Wonderland for the duchess and the often abused baby that made its way into Disney’s Red Queen. Is the grotesque a way to put down haughty women? Pretty sure. And to make it clear, here we have a print of Albrecht Dürer’s A Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, showing a naked old woman with all the trappings of witchcraft, both powerful and vicious.

And yet, unlike the ugly duchess, it’s worth considering the other double portrait here by Jan Gossaerts of An Elderly Couple, the husband toothless, the wife sullenly and modestly dressed. In comparison, the ugly duchess looks a lot more memorable and has, I’d say, the last laugh.

National Gallery, March 16-June 11; The Ugly Duchess at the National Gallery Review: makes her laugh for the last time

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