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Quinten Massys, An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess')

Key facts
Full title An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess')
Artist Quinten Massys
Artist dates 1465/6 - 1530
Date made about 1513
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 62.4 × 45.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bequeathed by Miss Jenny Louisa Roberta Blaker, 1947
Inventory number NG5769
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess')
Quinten Massys

This must be one of the most striking studies in ugliness in Western painting. An elderly woman with a very short nose and an exceedingly long upper lip rests one hand on a marble parapet. Her skin is pimply and wrinkled, and she seems to have lost her teeth. In spite of her hideous appearance, she is elegantly and aristocratically dressed, although by the time this picture was painted her clothes would have been many years out of date.

This painting is part of a pair: her ‘other half’ is in a private collection in New York. They are satirical portraits, mocking the vanity of the old and ugly who dress and behave as if they are still young. The woman is an elderly temptress, offering her partner a rosebud, which itself has sexual connotations; her exposed breasts are a parody of the temptations of the flesh, and the horns on her headdress are devilish.

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