Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Ugly Duchess and her Partner

I recently read that there is a special exhibition at the National Gallery in London. called, “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance”. It is small, only 15 works, but it is a revelatory show on view until June 11.

The Old Woman circa 1513 is by Quinten Massys (1465/6-1530.) She is known as the Ugly Duchess because she inspired John Tenniel’s popular illustrations for Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865). For a long time, the painting was thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci but scholars today agree that it is by Massys but modeled on one of the “grotesque” drawings by the Italian master.

Journalist Marianna Cerini titled her March 16, 2023 article for CNN, “The Ugly Duchess: how an unsettling Renaissance portrait challenges ideas of aging women and beauty.” She writes, “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.”

As I have often said the interpretation of a painting is up to the viewer and there is a different interpretation of the painting by the curator of the show, Emma Capron, a Renaissance expert. She believes that she is a he, in her words, “a cross-dresser as a play on gender. We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women”.

I would ask then why has Capron includes in the exhibition the painting that is believed to be the pendant and possibly the Ducchess’ husband. Their reunion was a nice surprise for me. In 1976 I sold the Massys Portrait of an Old Man to a private collector, saying we believed it was the pendant to the Ugly Duchess. This is only the second occasion they have come together in recent times. Their previous “marriage” happened 15 years ago at the National gallery in an exhibition called “Renaissance Faces”. If indeed it is a couple you can see who is in charge. She may be ugly but she is also formidable!

The exhibition includes other works in various media and from different countries mostly from the Museum’s collection, where the women depicted are anything but beautiful. There is one very important loan, a drawing borrowed from the Royal collection to illustrate the relationships of the Massys to its probable source, a drawing attributed to Francesco Meizi the leading assistant to Leonardo. It is believed that this drawing is a copy of Leonardo’s original concept.

Helpfully, the exhibition includes a facsimile sheet of of other Grotesques by Leonardo.

Is the Ugly Duchess a study of old age or an exercise in satire? A portrait of a marriage? A “he” or a “she”? I love the idea of a show that will force you to look, see and make up your own mind as to what to think.

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