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Image of ‘Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quinten Massys, about 1525-30.

‘Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quinten Massys, about 1525-30

The ugly old woman in this portrait is wearing a very a low-cut dress that was fashionable in Italy over 500 years ago. Her head-dress, however, was popular in Germany. It is not certain whether this is a portrait of a real person, or a picture carrying a moral message. It has been suggested that the sitter is possibly Margaret, Duchess of Carinthia and Countess of Tyrol. It has also been suggested that the sitter had a hereditary illness, called Paget’s Disease, which causes the bones in the face to become deformed.

The cruelly comic message in the painting may have derived from the humanist Erasmus’s writings. In his satire ‘Praise of Folly’, he mocks old woman who “still wish to play the goat, industriously smear their faces with paint, never get away from the mirror, and do not hesitate to display their foul and withered breasts.”

It is thought that an engraving of this painting inspired John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

© The National Gallery, London

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