• Heard in London

Quentin Massys - An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess)

Having a picture of this right at the top of the blog is going to really annoy me for the next few days, but will hopefully act as an incentive to write another blog post asap, and move it down the page!



This painting always offends me when I walk past it on my many visits to the National Gallery, I literally run past it as it's so repulsive. It always reminds me of the Ugly Duchess from Alice in Wonderland (as illustrated by John Tenniel), and only now do I know that this painting was in fact Tenniel's inspiration for the character.


So the natural thing to do is write a blog post about it right? My line of thought was that if I find out more about it, I may learn to love it! So let's see...


First thoughts on this painting. Why would anyone commission it, why would anyone paint it and would anyone in the world ever want it on their wall? Imagine walking past it every single day, having to explain it to all your guests and visitors, or even wandering past it when the lights are out!


It's attributed to Quentin Massys, a leading Belgian painter in Antwerp in the early 1500's, who was inspired by early Netherlandish art (think Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van Der Weyden). And the man can create some stunning pieces, The Money Changer and His Wife at the Lourve in Paris is a painting I remember seeing for the first time very vividly.


Back to the painting in question, the wrinkly skinned sitter is extremely inappropriately dressed for her age, her Italianate gown is dangerously low-cut, and her aristocratic horned-headdress is a hundred years out of date. She's basically wearing what was fashionable in her youth. She holds a red flower she's offering to a lover, it's a symbol of engagement and gives us the impression that she's on the look out for a suitor, and notice that it's a bud that hasn't blossomed yet (will it ever?).


On to her face, it's quite distorted. From her long upper lip to her strangely shaped nose, it has been suggested that this women has the symptoms of Pagets disease (which remodels and deforms bones), but the artist isn't being sympathetic towards her one bit!


It's intended to ridicule old women who try to recreate their youth and poke a bit of fun at them. This painting was produced in the Renaissance period, and it was perfectly normal to make fun out of ugly or deformed people.


The inspiration for An Old Woman is believed it be Erasmus's essay In Praise of Folly (1511), which mocks women who "still play the coquette", "cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors" and "do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts". Yep, I definitely see that link.


Originally it was actually believed to have been by Leonardo da Vinci, due to the basis that it has striking resemblances to two caricature drawings by the artist, but it's now agreed that Leonardos drawings were based on those by Massys, as they are known to have exchanged drawings.


So after researching this bizarre painting have my thoughts changed?

Absolutely not, and I shall carry on rushing through this room averting my gaze!