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In the case of this portrait, there are two conflicting accounts of its genesis. Either it is a real portrait - possibly of Margaret, countess of Tyrol, also known as Margarete Maultasch ("Satchel-mouth") - or it is a satire on old women trying to ape youthful attractiveness. Again, either it is a copy of a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, or (now thought more likely) Leonardo copied it. It was an inspiration for Tenniel's Duchess in Alice in Wonderland.

While the children were quick to pounce on the grotesquerie with headlines like Cover Up or Ugly Duchess, enjoying the savage fun of the tabloid press, they were duly remorseful and compassionate when they heard how detective work has uncovered a medical reason for the woman's strange appearance. On the other hand, they were shocked to hear how far-reaching the powers of a 16th-century ruler might be, and how rich compared to most subjects.

Medical research on the subject of the painting found she was suffering from an extremely rare form of Paget's disease, osteitis deformans, a chronic disorder which enlarges and deforms the bones. Paget's disease is named after 19th-century British surgeon Sir James Paget, who first described the illness.

Nevertheless, only a very powerful woman would have the confidence to commission a portrait of herself when she looked so unusual. There was surely the intent to defy public opinion. In its way, then, and of its time, a tabloid moment.

Here are two possible ways that today's newspapers might have tackled Massys' subject's visit to London, 2008:
Article 1 by Victoria Neumark
Article 2 by Victoria Neumark
Image of Victoria Neumark.
  Victoria introduces her work

Article 1 by Victoria Neumark
Image of quote from article.
Article 2 by Victoria Neumark
Image of quote from article.
Image of students.Click here for Student Responses.
Detail of ‘Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quinten Massys, about 1525-30.Click here for About the Painting.
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More about Victoria Neumark