‘The Ugly Duchess:’ How an unsettling Renaissance portrait challenges ideas of aging women and beauty

CNN Newsource Pristine Villarreal

(CNN) — The 1513 portrait “An Old Woman” by Flemish artist Quinten Massys might well be one of the Renaissance’s most famous paintings. It is also one of the period’s most atypical.

With wrinkled skin, withered breasts, and eyes set deep in their sockets, Massys’ subject — believed to be either a fictional folkloric character or a woman suffering from an exceptionally rare form of Paget’s disease — is visibly elderly. But she’s not just old; she’s grotesque. Her forehead is bulging, her nose snub and wide, her squared chin overly prominent. Even her attire is a far cry from what you’d expect a Renaissance lady her age to wear. Rather than modest, sober clothes, she’s donning a revealing low-cut dress showing off her décolleté (and those dimpled breasts).

She shares none of the idealized qualities seen in other female figures of that era, like Sandro Botticelli’s Venus or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Yet, despite her appearance, the portrait — more often referred to as “The Ugly Duchess” — is so captivating that it made the old woman one of the most unforgettable figures of her time. Now, a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery titled “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” is set to shed new light on her arresting looks.

For it, Massys’ painting will be showcased alongside its companion piece, “An Old Man,” on loan from a private collection, as well as with other works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Jan Gossaert, featuring equally expressive older women, to explore how the female body, age and certain facial features were satirized and demonized during the Renaissance.

“The ‘Ugly Duchess’ is one of the most beloved and divisive pieces in the National Gallery,” the show’s curator Emma Capron said in a phone interview ahead of the show’s opening. “Some people love it, some people hate it, some people cannot look at it. I wanted to interrogate that, while also examining how this and similar images of ‘transgressing’ women — aging women outside the classic standards of beauty — have actually served to mock societal norms and upset social order. Despite what you might think at first glance, these are powerful, ambivalent, even joyful figures.”


Subverting conventions


For a long time, critics interpreted Massys’ painting mainly as a misogynistic satire of female vanity and self-delusion. Similarly, her scandalous appearance next to that of the man — possibly her husband — who is decidedly more formally dressed than her (even a tad boring), has long been considered as a parody of marriage (she’s seen offering him a rosebud as a token of love, but he has a hand raised as if to indicate contempt).

But, Capron said, the painting is actually a lot more layered than that. “This is an older, ugly woman questioning the canons of beauty normativity,” she explained. “With her exaggerated features, she symbolizes someone who’s not apologetic about herself and what she’s wearing, and who is not trying to hide or be invisible. l

“On the contrary, she’s trampling the rules of propriety and the way women of a certain age are supposed to behave. Her defiance and irreverence seem completely of our times — and are what has made her picture so enduring.”

Her position in relation to her partner also signals she’s not just the butt of the joke. The duchess is in fact standing on the right — the beholder’s left — which in double portraits of that period was the most elevated side, and usually reserved to men. Essentially, she’s taking the place of her male counterpart. “It’s like she’s turning the world upside down, and bringing change forth,” Capron said.

Massys, she added, was likely very aware of the reactions his over-the-top character would stir. While ridiculing the old woman was certainly part of his concept for the piece, the painter also used the work to make fun of classic art principles, blend high and low culture — the dignified genre of portraiture with the carnivalesque figure — and propel the grotesque into the mainstream.

Many of his contemporaries shared similar ambitions. Two related drawings of the same memorable face attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and his leading assistant Francesco Melzi, which are also on display in the exhibition, point to the possibility that the Flemish painter based his painting on the compositions by the Italian master, who was just as fascinated with the subversive potential that subjects like older women might hold.

By the same token, the other pieces in the show—- from the scowling maiolica (a type of Italian tin-glazed earthenware) “Bust of an Old Woman” (about 1490-1510), lent by the Fitzwilliam Museum, to the menacing-looking “Witch Riding Backward on a Goat” by Albrecht Dürer (1498-1500) — also reveal how, for many Renaissance artists, “older women offered a space to experiment and play that the depiction of conventional beauty and normative bodies simply couldn’t allow,” Capron said.


Older women in art


Elderly women haven’t just served satirical art. From ancient Roman sculptures to contemporary artworks, aging female figures have in fact appeared under a number of different guises from artists around the world.

“Across visual traditions and genres, older women have always made especially compelling subjects,” art historian Frima Fox Hofrichter — who co-edited an entire anthology on the topic titled “Women, Aging and Art” — said in a phone interview. “With their wrinkles and sagging breasts, furrowed brows and shapely bodies, they’ve taken on a range of widely diverse, often nuanced meanings that go well beyond the caricature.”

Old women have been used as reminders of death and the unstoppable march of time, from Hans Baldung Grien’s 1541 “The Ages of Woman and Death” to Francisco Goya’s unsettling “Time and the Old Women,” painted in 1810.

They’ve been rendered with empathy and compassion to reflect wisdom, softness, and dignity, as seen in Rembrandt’s paintings of old women from the early to mid-1600s such as “An Old Woman Praying” (1629), in which the artist’s used light and shadow to create a sense of depth and emotional intensity that emphasize the woman’s (likely his mother) spiritual devotion and his respect for her faith; or “An Old Woman Reading” (1655), where the lived-in face of the elderly figure shows a tender, gentle expression that exudes warmth and care.

Often — in step with age-old attitudes about gender — they’ve come to embody sin and malevolence, as shown in the wealth of European witch iconography from the modern era, from Jacques de Gheyn’s “Witches’ Sabbath”, dated around the 16th-early 17th century to “Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters” by Henry Fuseli, circa 1783.

“In all their various forms, they’ve been the opposite of invisible,” Fox Hofrichter said. “Whether through stereotypical depictions or positive associations, elderly women in art have made us look, think, and shown us something new. There’s a lot of power in that.”

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as more female artists have entered the field, the representation of older women has changed afresh. Their bodies, in particular, have come to the forefront in unflinching, even confronting new ways, and — crucially — seen through a woman’s lens.

American painter Joan Semmel’s large-scale nude self-portraits are perhaps the best example of that, documenting her own body as it’s aged over the decades. Semmel, now 90, began the project in the 1980s as a way to depict herself in a way that felt truthful to her, without idealizing or concealing the natural effects of aging, from drooping breasts to sagging skin. The resulting works couldn’t be further from the notion of traditional female portraiture that puts youth and perfection above all. Instead, they show the audience a woman coming to terms with her own aging flesh.

African American artist Diane Edison, too, hasn’t shied away from exploring her personal history through uncompromising self-portraits that spotlight her weathered face and body, balancing vulnerability and defiance at once.

Recasting old age has also been done by way of fantasy worlds. In the series “My Grandmothers” (2000) Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi asked a group of young women (and some men) to imagine themselves in 50 years’ time, to challenge constructs about old age and their perceived notions of what “elderly” might look like.

By focusing on the wrinkles, lines, and other physical features that come with age, these artists have highlighted the ways in which aging can shape and define a person, challenging the notion that youth is the only time worth celebrating, and old age something to be feared or avoided.

“When older women appear on canvas, film or sculpture, they expand our understanding of what it means to age.” Fox Hofrichter said. “In a way, that makes them more challenging to capture, and, as a result, more challenging for the viewers to look at. Which is the essence of great art.”

Capron agrees. “Women are so often presented as either young and beautiful or old and invisible. But so many artworks have proved time and again that there are so many more gradients in between,” she said. And the “The Ugly Duchess” is proof that even the caricature of an elderly lady can contain multitudes.

“The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” runs March 16 – June 11 at the National Gallery in London.

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