• Mar 24,2023
  • In Review
  • By Abundant Art

Review: The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance- The National Gallery, until 11 June

In Room 46 on the second floor of the National Gallery, this tucked-in pocket within the vast treasures and picture-scapes of the Gallery hosts a changing season of exhibitions. These of which submit to a focus on smaller and less acknowledged artworks. The Ugly Duchess, Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance as an exhibition is no exception with Massys’ ‘The Ugly Duchess’ taking a much-deserved centre stage, and this time for all the right reasons.

Quinten Massys’ An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’) [c.1513] is utterly arresting, we are drawn to every detailed line. The costume and gesture are for all intended purposes to seduce a man. Yet she is portrayed to falter at every turn, the headdress is one for the 15th century, which defines her as too old-fashioned. It yields as a pleading, as an overbearing decoration of female vanity, – her rosebud, is drooping. Grey hair, sagging and wart-ridden skin, with a low-cut dress, we are meant to laugh at the prospect of her being a maiden, sully and read her to filth for her lust is a joke, for she is unable to refrain from her sexuality, – a sexuality which is but her own.

The room exhibits Massys’ contemporaries including Jan Gossaert’s An Elderly Couple [c.1520] which dually is an uncompromising image of old age: honest, bare and neither chews the fat of the sitters’ preclusions about their gloried appearance. Yet there is no bite, the man remains on the proper right, the woman’s gaze is downward, and she is dressed modestly with a covered chest, unlike An Old Woman who shares none of these attributes and comfortably takes the seated position on the right. The old woman is in the right, in the subject, but remains one favoured by none, even in fable and fiction. The other side of this painted pair, Quinten Massys’ An Old Man [c.1513], is conventional. The old man is sober, his salutation is moving into rebuke, for this is love unrequited. His ageing is a maturing of the soul, rather than one of spectacle, grievance, and ridicule. With even Massys’ study of An Old Man [1513], a work on paper laid over the canvas, shown beside the final rendering is viewed as also commercially appealing. Invariably showing this man’s temperance pervades, all times, renderings, and versions. The misogyny is rampant, not just in the world of the 16th-century character head, but still holds focus in its relatability today.

The Ugly Duchess is a legacy of a misunderstood image, mainly due to its relationship to the inspiration for the infamous duchess in Alice in Wonderland.  The painting is recognised and taunted over, but the date, context, and even the artist are unknown by most. Massys was a pioneer for satirical painting, and An Old Woman is arguably his greatest accomplishment. This painting and the other drawings/depictions within the exhibition set the scene for how novel, lively, and truly unserious the artistic exchanges of the 16th century were at times. As much as this work speaks to only a cruel joke it is also as subversive and disobedient against the conventions of the day. Under Massys’ instruction, the classically told tale of portraiture is made reactionary, a true instigator of parody of character heads and double portraiture. The pretty is forever restricted by societal norms and its beauty standards are one frame single-minded. White to quote, Umberto Eco, ‘ugliness is infinite like God.’

Massys is in deep contact with Leonardo da Vinci’s intrigue with the grotesque, with da Vinci’s drawing A Grotesque Old Woman, [also on display], as the chalked-in motif plucked and ran with, as what An Old Woman is based upon. Leonardo’s vernacular pervades Massys work, in fanciful exploration and experimentation. In da Vinci’s Seven Grotesque Profiles [1520-1600], the carnation in the bosom finds a home in the rosebud between the fingertips of Massys’ An Old Woman.

Also exhibited is Israel van Meckenem’s The Unequal Couple, which requires nothing but close attention, exercising the value of the relationship between the older woman and the younger man as purely transactional. The older woman is made fun of, as a lesser with complexions sickly, and a despondent smile. As ultimately the other. She is centred only as the subject of entertainment, as an image to amuse the court.

Other conversations do prevail with the South German Artist’s work, A Seated Old Woman [c.1520-25], which triggers the notions of the classical nude, refuting a defiant figure, instead, she is shown frail, fallen, and weak. Her ribcage holds the visible centre of the sculpture. This is a vanitas, a study of the passing of time and what will become of us all. The lustful woman in old age finds an equal counterpart in the engraving of Albrecht Durer’s A witch Riding Backwards In A goat [c1550], which depicts an old woman as a hag, as truly sexually fierce, a then contemporaries’ first. The hag is dangerous, unapologetic, and unchecked.

This is the second of four exhibitions for the National Gallery’s spring season, the former being the ongoing Nalini Malani: My Reality is Different, the third being upcoming After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, and finally in late Spring Saint Francis of Assisi. This rich selection is only the beginning of all that is leading up to the bicentenary of the National Gallery next year.

This reckoned-with and now reignited gem, Massys’ An Old Woman, seated centre first with its contemporaries and influences, are here for our viewing pleasure right until the exhibition close on the 11th of June 2023.

Image: An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’) about 1513, Quinten Massys (1465/6 – 1530), Oil on oak 62.4 x 45.5 cm, The National Gallery, London

Review by Devika Pararasasinghe

Devika is currently living and working in London, by trade an artist and snake oil salesperson. Devika graduated in September 2022 with a research MFA at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.

Devika’s latest review Review: Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle-Barbican Art Gallery until 21 May (abundantart.net)


Emma Capron, Associate Curator (Renaissance Painting) at the National Gallery, says: “The Ugly Duchess’ is an iconic image with a strong contemporary resonance. She has captivated generations of artists and visitors to the National Gallery. We are thrilled to unravel this work and reunite it for the first time ever with the grotesque drawings after Leonardo da Vinci that inspired it.”

For more information visit The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance | Exhibitions | National Gallery, London




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