This picture was probably intended to satirise old women who try inappropriately to recreate their youth. Massys has evidently depicted a woman who suffered from Paget’s disease, a malformation of bone. Leonardo da Vinci seems to have been inspired by Massys’s painting.
About the podcast clip:
Is this grotesque woman merely a product of the artist's imagination? Curators Luke Syson and Susan Foister explain what lies behind this woman's ugliness.
From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Five (November 2008)
Find out more about Quinten Massys, An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess'), about 1513
Luke Syson: I must say, I’ve always absolutely loved this picture and I’ve never been quite sure why because she’s so ugly. And I think when I was a child I thought she was terribly funny. Do you think she’s meant to be funny? I mean…
Susan Foister: She obviously thinks she’s very beautiful. She’s wearing a very, very elaborate headdress with its long white frilly veil, pinned up on this extraordinary horned headdress. I think what a lot of people won’t realise is that she’s not wearing an up-to-date fashion for an early 16th-century portrait. She’s wearing something very old fashioned. She’s wearing a dress that might be 100 years old, which might mean that she’s nearly 100 years old. She’s certainly wearing the fashions of her youth and the wrinkles on her face and on her breast indicate that she might be a very old person. She’s certainly very, very wrinkly.
Luke Syson: And she’s got this kind of sort of pug nosed face. I mean, with this sort of blob at the end of it and then this enormously long upper lip. I mean, she is grotesque really. I mean, it’s rather sort of horrifying.
Susan Foister: It’s very disconcerting. I’ve always thought that that sort of distortion of her face made her look more like a monkey than a human woman. It’s not just the wrinkles and the jowliness, there are very strange things happening to her face and her nose and it seems that those sort of distortions may be ones that Massys himself actually observed from a woman who had something extremely unpleasant called Paget’s Disease in which the bones of the face became distorted in exactly this way, and this may have given him the idea for this grotesque head of a woman.
Luke Syson: But do you think he was being… he can’t possibly have been thinking of her sympathetically because, I mean, there she is with her, how can you put it, withered dugs and this little rosebud that she’s pressing ardently between her cleavage and she’s a figure of fun, so presumably this isn’t a lovely Renaissance piece of sympathy.
Susan Foister: No, I think he’s being very critical of her. She’s an old woman looking for love and she’s made herself into a figure of fun, so he’s probably done two things… he’s taken somebody who in real life with that kind of illness and distortion probably was a figure of fun, because we know that people were not very sympathetic towards ugliness and deformity in the Renaissance, and then he’s used that to make her into this personification of… perhaps it’s lust. But certainly old women were not supposed to be in love and offering little rosebuds to potential lovers as this woman is.
Luke Syson: But it’s quite interesting isn’t it, because after all, monkeys to some – later on at least – do symbolise lust and she has got that slightly simian quality. And this idea that both your merits and your demerits, your vices, showed on the face is something that perhaps he’s kind of thinking about here to some degree. I mean she’s actually not just a figure of fun, but something worse than that; she’s somebody who has allowed her passions to control the way she actually looks.
Susan Foister: Yes, I’m sure that for the Renaissance, exactly, she would have been somebody whose base passions had run away with her and therefore she’s more like an animal than a human being. There are none of the higher feelings that she ought to be showing here. And in the Renaissance I’m afraid it was women who tended to be criticised for these lustful thoughts more than men.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Susan Foister and Luke Syson.