This focused exhibition shines a light on one of the National Gallery’s most unforgettable faces: Quinten Massys’s An Old Woman (about 1513). The figure is better known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’ because she inspired John Tenniel’s famous illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). She has remained associated with the world of fairytale ever since.
The exhibition moves away from the painting’s Victorian afterlife to focus on its Renaissance context, unveiling its status as a pioneering work of satirical art. At the heart of the exhibition, An Old Woman is reunited with her male pendant, An Old Man (about 1513), on rare loan from a private collection. Their joint display allows us to make sense of the woman’s flamboyant costume and gesture: she has put on this expensive, revealing, and by then old-fashioned outfit in the hope of seducing the old man. She offers him a rosebud as a token of love. More soberly dressed, he raises his hand, perhaps as a sign of rebuke. The image takes aim at the supposed folly, vanity, and lust of older women. In treating such figures of fun with the fine execution and serious trappings of portraiture, Massys parodied the dignified genre.
Leonardo da Vinci makes an unexpected cameo appearance in the exhibition: Massys based An Old Woman on a composition by his Italian contemporary, whose drawings of grotesque heads were famed all over Europe. Illustrating a key chapter in the history of artistic exchanges between Italy and the Netherlands, the show presents the painting with these sheets, generously lent by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection and the New York Public Library, for the very first time.
‘The Ugly Duchess’ belongs to a broader visual tradition that derided and vilified older women, as will be shown through a tight selection of sculptures, paintings, and prints. Beyond the obvious misogyny, these works demonstrate that older women also afforded Renaissance artists a space for invention and play that depictions of normative beauty did not allow. Their unruly bodies were metaphors for social disorder, and there is an undeniable joy in beholding ‘The Ugly Duchess’ trample beauty standards, social conventions, and gender expectations. The image’s enduring power perhaps lies in this irreverence.
An Old Woman has been conserved for the occasion, revealing the full extent of its bright palette and outstanding facture. The humorous contrast between the painting’s technical refinement and its indecorous subject will shine through now more than ever.