The Ugly Duchess, National Gallery
March 16 - June 11
The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance will be on view at the National Gallery from 16 March.
This show will provide fresh insights on An Old Woman by Quinten Massys, one of the Gallery’s most iconic works of art (about 1513). This stunning figure, known as The Ugly Duchess, defied Western standards of beauty and decency. She served as the model for John Tenniel’s wildly successful paintings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). Since then, she has continued to be connected to the realm of fairy tales.
This panel would have been novel as an early work of secular and satirical art, two areas which Quinten Massys (1465/66-1530) pioneered. For the first time, an exhibition will move away from the painting’s Victorian afterlife to focus on its original context. The exhibition will explore the dynamic creative interactions occurring between the Netherlands and Italy at the period, as well as the attitudes of the Renaissance towards older women and the value put – both then and now – on women’s youth and attractiveness.
The display will demonstrate how An Old Woman is a part of a larger visual tradition that scorned and denigrated older women, including the iconic and terrifying Witch Riding Backward on a Goat by Albrecht Dürer. Beyond the overt sexism, these pieces demonstrate how older women allowed Renaissance painters to express themselves creatively and playfully in ways that representations of conventional beauty did not. Their disorderly bodies served as symbols for society disorder, and there is an unmistakable thrill in seeing An Old Woman disobey gender norms, beauty standards and social mores. This irreverence may be the source of the image’s lasting impact.
The entire scope of its exceptional craftsmanship is shown by the preservation of An Old Woman for the occasion. More than ever, the painting’s ironic juxtaposition between its debonair topic and its technically accomplished execution will be seen.
The remarkable reunification of An Old Woman with her male pendant, An Old Man (about 1513) will serve as the centrepiece of the show. The Renaissance Faces exhibition exhibited at the National Gallery 15 years ago was the only time in the two pieces’ existence that they were displayed together. Visitors will be able to understand the woman’s showy gesture and wardrobe thanks to their combined exhibit: she was trying to seduce the elderly guy by donning this pricey, scandalously exposed, and by that point outdated dress.
Who are these individuals? According to rumours, the artist may have shown a woman with Paget’s disease, a rare condition that causes bone enlargement. However, as evidenced by various prints, she was presumably a made-up mythological character from the realm of carnival rather than being drawn from reality. Massys mocked the dignified genre by displaying figures of fun like ornate portraits. By juxtaposing An Old Woman and An Old Man with portraits from the Gallery’s collection, such as Jan Gossaert’s Elderly Couple, this will be made clear in the show (about 1520). Massys also referenced satirical engravings of unbalanced couples, such as The Ill-Matched Couple by Israhel van Meckenem (about 1480–1490), which will be on display.
A stunning appearance from Leonardo da Vinci will appear in the show. An OId Woman will be shown for the first time ever with two related works by Leonardo da Vinci that depict the same recognisable face.
Also at the National Gallery
Nalini Malani: My Reality Is Different (2 March to 11 June, free), After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art (25 March to 13 August 2023, charged); and Saint Francis of Assisi (6 May – 30 July 2023, free).
The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance
The National Gallery, Room 46, from 16 March to 11 June, 2023. Admission free. Open daily from 10am to 6pm
Friday until 9pm.
To discover more, visit https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/.
Cover image: Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple, about 1520, © The National Gallery, London
- March 16
- June 11
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- National Gallery
- Trafalgar Square
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