National treasures – Massys: An Old Woman

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

Just as Breugel’s irreverent Adoration of the Kings is an enjoyably startling incongruity amongst the National’s religious scenes, so An Old Woman is a bit of a surprise amongst its numerous portraits of noblewomen and alabaster-skinned beauties.

Painted in about 1513 and attributed to Quentin Massys, you might get the feeling you’ve seen this Old Woman before. That’ll either be because you’re familiar with one of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘qrotesques’, on whom she is probably based…

or, perhaps more likely, you remember John Tenniel’s Ugly Duchess from Alice, who is probably based on her.

The National Gallery’s literature suggests that this is a cruel painting: a satire on the mutton dressed as lamb; the foolish old woman who thinks she’s still a looker. The, ahem, expansive display of wrinkly cleavage would certainly support this argument, but I take a slightly more generous view of the portrait. Leonardo drew grotesques, surely, because he was fascinated by humanity in all its forms. Why can’t we credit Massys with a similar attitude? The lady here is so very ugly that she has an endearing quality, and there’s a kindness in the eyes. Why shouldn’t she be worthy of a beautiful (in the technical sense) portrait?

Or perhaps it is just cruel, low comedy. Anyway, the Ugly Duchess is immortal: being a muse to Leonardo, Messys and Tenniel isn’t bad, is it? And, unlike so many of those boilerplate beauties, she’s memorable too.

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5 thoughts on “National treasures – Massys: An Old Woman

    November 23, 2010 at 09:38

    Since seeing this at a young age, it’s become the image of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in my imagination. I agree with you Brit, she seems kindly and honest. To me it’s a sort of medieval Beryl Cook picture.

    November 23, 2010 at 09:55

    Some wag once suggested that it looked as though she was watching the coalman making a delivery and counting the sacks. She seems to be a cross between Vince Cable and Norman Tebbit.

    November 23, 2010 at 10:02

    By God you’re right there, Malty. Plus a bit of Jordan, perhaps…

  4. Gaw
    November 23, 2010 at 10:15

    Another theory is that she was suffering from a disfiguring disease, the name of which escapes me.

  5. Worm
    November 23, 2010 at 13:18

    a brief googling tells me that the disease is called Paget’s Disease

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