The Ugly Duchess: Beauty & Satire In The Renaissance National Gallery – David Berridge

The Ugly Duchess

My starting hunch is that this is a man in drag, which might leave the breasts unexplained. They could be a man’s chest pushed up, then exaggerated a bit. Like the figure’s deliberately old-fashioned horned headwear, it could be intentionally ridiculous, but if I started laughing, it would feel a disconcerting mix of misogyny, satire, and celebration. Soon I am feeling trapped in preconceptions and prejudices. Is there a way to think about this figure beyond binaries of gender, judgemental understandings of beauty, ugliness, and old age? What about those five centuries between us?

Of course, An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’) by Quintin Massys has been generating interpretations and projections since it was painted in around 1513. In eighteenth-century France, the image appeared in woodcuts on political broadsheets where it was identified as the Pope’s sister Porcia, whilst in John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of 1865, the “very ugly” Duchess is unmistakably familiar. London’s National Gallery, where the Duchess has been proffering her red rose in the permanent collection since 1947, has made a small one-room exhibition to explore the historical context whilst aware of a still potent shock for tourists and locals wandering unawares into room 46.

Born in Leuven and documented as a master craftsman in Antwerp, this is not Massy’s first appearance at the National Gallery in recent years. In 2021, Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist had a section on Netherlandish portrait painting, with a couple of Massys’ diptychs. In one, separate portraits of a man and a woman looked out (although not at each other) from within thick shadow and shared Italianate frames. In the other, the tradition of scholar’s portrait was revived, with Desiderius Erasmus and his friend Peter Gilles shown amongst their books, the former writing whilst Gilles seemed to look on, affectionate, admiring, and somewhat smaller in scale.

In the current show, An Old Woman also gets reunited with An Old Man, long argued to be its pair, partly because of a shared marble ledge on which both figures rest a left hand, plus the figures appearing together in a 1645 print by Wenceslaus Hollar. Unlike the Duchess, her male companion is a more conventional, unremarkable depiction of an elderly gentleman. The wall text quickly points out the painting’s reversal of the conventional placing of the man on the left side, understood as more powerful. Those other portrait pairs of Massys, however, suggest there was often a play with size, gaze, posture, continuities and disruptions, maybe even joking around the very concept of ‘couple.’

Mythological pairings include Neptune and Amphitrite (in a painting by Jan Goessart), Mary and baby Jesus (by almost everyone)… I hold such pairs in mind as I look at this old man and woman. Is there a way to think of them as mirror images? There was an interest in mirrors in the art of the period, but I am not sure I could go further than that. A surer iconographical footing supports the hand the man raises in response to the older woman’s solicitations. A rebuke, salutation, and greeting, as curator Emma Capron highlights in her catalogue essay, it appears elsewhere, both in Angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin in Annunciation scenes, Herod’s shock at John the Baptist’s severed head on a platter, also St. Anthony’s attempt to resist carnal temptation. As a greeting, it appears in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, just down the corridor in the National Gallery, which also has a mirror.

Where, why and from what did Massys generate the old woman? The scholarly consensus is that the image is copied from a lost  visi mostruosi (monstrous face) of Leonardo da Vinci, but one that only survives in two copies: a red chalk drawing by Francesco Mezi, Leonardo’s associate and heir, and a much later black chalk drawing, one of 104 copies from Leonardo bound, somewhat appropriately, with an edition of Rabelais in Lombardy in 1669. Both clearly show our Duchess: the horned headdress, same low neckline and face, although with none of the vivid detailing of fabrics, nor the broader choreography of arm, hand, rose, and marble ledge. This has led to an alternative theory: Leonardo did a drawing based on a Massys painting. If the catalogue essays here reject that, both possibilities convey the back and forth of drawings and artists between the North and Italy at the time, although no evidence suggests a meeting or exchange of drawings between Messys and Leonardo like that proven to have occurred between Dürer and Raphael.

Even going back to the original Leonardo-drawings-as-source theory can somewhat obscure the conundrum Da Vinci’s drawings themselves represent.

As the art historian E.H. Gombrich pointed out (in a 1952 Royal Academy lecture, reprinted in The Heritage of Apelles), making sense of what Leonardo was doing involves sifting through both different possibilities – figures sketched in street, “freaks” sought out in hospitals, figures seen in popular prints satirising the folly of love and old age, doodles and marginalia uprising from the unconscious- as they are filtered through our changing understandings of Leonardo himself: the “odd and wayward wizard” of Vasari, perhaps, or the genius scientist of the nineteenth century, for whom the drawings contribute to a Treatise of Physiognomics that prefigures Darwin.

Perhaps the gestation and reception of An Old Woman is better understood through textual sources. How important, for example, was Aristotle’s ideas that the ugly= laugh out loud funny (I paraphrase), or stories of Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who truthfully painted an old woman then died of laughter from looking at what he had done. Messys’ portrait of Erasmus sends me to the later’s Praise of Folly, its description (in the Betty Radice Penguin Classics translation) of old women “forever smearing their faces with make-up and taking tweezers to their pubic hairs, exposing their sagging, withered breasts and trying to rouse failing desire with their quavery whining voices”. Which might detail contemporary attitudes to age and femininity, but always at a gap from the painting itself.

The supporting cast of objects in room 46 offers commentary on these possibilities. Jan Gossaert’s An Elderly Couple seems a relatively faithful and dignified depiction of old age, maybe lightly satirical in its contrast of their sober poses with the classical lovers on the man’s hat brooch. Another An Old Woman by Massys, possibly unfinished, also offers a realistic portrayal of age and might also have had a pendant, but could also be more of a tronie (character study) than portrait, its sideways glance indicating envy. It is perturbing how these different meanings become challenging to discern. However, the satirical intent seems clearer in the toothless grin of a tin-glazed, painted earthenware Bust of an Old Woman, made in Faenza. Turning to the pear wood A Seated Old Woman from South Germany, I felt I could no longer discern between satire, realism, misogyny, a penitent Mary, or, with addition of a tall meat-bearing pole, the carnivalesque figure of the Sausage-Woman surrounded by a troupe of grotesque Morris dancers.

But all gazes return to the Duchess in room 46, who, it seems to me, both contains and withdraws from all these possibilities. She is not, as in contemporaneous imagery, shown with a younger man or being the victim of a scam because of her vanity. However, slight variations of size and presence between the two portraits create a subtle push and pull of authority. Painting, as opposed to drawing or printmaking, fleshes out a presence with detail of body (that pimple) and context, that perhaps removes the simplifying straight jacket of physiognomic morality. Could Messys be critiquing Leonardo, echoing Alberti’s warning of the painter becoming too reliant on a limited array of facial types, bringing to bear on the visi mostruosi the emboldening conventions of 16th-century Netherlandish portraiture?

Or maybe we should walk in and erupt in raucous laughter. I find an odd confirmation in one final object included here: Albrecht Dürer’s A Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, which Erwin Panofsky’s magisterial monograph on Dürer glosses as “weird”, its intention “To illustrate the idea of a topsy-turvy, or perverted, world”. But here, too, the excess seems to lead to something beyond our normal categories: the witch’s long hair might remind us of Dürer’s loving depiction of his own locks in a self-portrait. The title suggests a witch streaking across the sky in reverse, but Dürer shows a fraught, implausible, collapsing enterprise, albeit one its non-binary protagonist rides with imperturbable confidence.

As I was writing this review, the show got a lot of press attention thanks to the curator claiming “she is most likely a he”, drawing attention to Messys interest in the cross-dressing of carnivals and refuting another popular theory that the figure depicted was a sufferer from Paget’s Disease. As it appeared on the news pages, this was a louder claim than the more qualified exhibition and its catalogue, confirming what the painting now seems to show: a bold and confident personality, not a grotesque fit only for misogynistic mockery, Papist propaganda, and a children’s classic.

The Ugly Duchess: Beauty & Satire in the Renaissance, The National Gallery, London, 16 March – 11 June 2023. Curated by Emma Capron 

Words: David Berridge Photo Detail Courtesy National Gallery London

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