U is for the Ugly Duchess

As usual, I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.

the-ugly-duchessOne of the most popular paintings at the National Gallery is the portrait of ‘An Old Woman’ by Flemish artist Quentin Massys, also known as The Ugly Duchess which inspired illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Painted in 1513, it was long thought to be a caricature ridiculing older women who foolishly try to recapture their youth by dressing inappropriately for their age.

The Ugly Duchess  wears the upper-class horned crown of her youth, out of fashion by the time of the painting, and holds a red flower in her right hand, a symbol of engagement, indicating that she is trying to attract a husband. And there is a long-held theory that Massys was copying a work by Leonardo Da Vinci.

But it seems that both interpretations are not entirely correct. First, it is unlikely that Massys created the work simply to poke fun at women who were ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ as he had a living to make, so it is probable that The Ugly Duchess was a real person and a powerful one at that.

Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London believes that she suffered from an exceptionally rare and advanced form of Paget’s disease which enlarged her jaw bones, extended her upper lip and pushed up her nose. It also affected her hands, eye sockets, forehead, chin and collarbones.

Art experts also saw similarities between The Ugly Duchess and drawings by Da Vinci thought to be a clue to one of his lost works that was copied by Massys. But more recent examination of the painting shows that Massys made amendments as he went along indicating that he was studying the subject at close quarters rather than simply copying another’s work. It is now assumed that Da Vinci, or one of his students, copied from Massys, not the other way round.

Whatever the explanation, The Ugly Duchess has entertained visitors to the National Gallery since it was bequeathed by Jenny Louisa Roberta Blaker in 1947 and inspired the illustrator John Tenniel to make her the unpredictable Duchess in the Lewis Carroll classic.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • Nonnie 30th November 2016

    wow, that is one ugly duchess for sure! I think people of all ages dress inappropriately- sometimes they’re hardly dressed at all. Not all, but too many celebrities seem to fit this category.

    Reply
  • Steve 30th November 2016

    Wow! I have never seen this painting but I can’t imagine the duchess would have paid for it. So much for “having a living to make,” right?! There definitely is a distinct resemblance to the Lewis Carroll character.

    Reply
  • leslie 30th November 2016

    Oh wow! What a story! If that woman actually lived, I feel so sorry for her as she would have had no recourse for plastic surgery in those days. And, if she were real, I do hope she found love in her life. Oh and I love that quote “mutton dressed as lamb.” There are some women even these days who are “of a certain age” that dress “too young” and end up looking ridiculous.

    Leslie
    abcw team

    Reply
  • Melody Steenkamp 30th November 2016

    Suppose one has to live like this….. how sad that is.

    Have a nice ABC-day / – Week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-team)
    http://melodymusic.nl/a-b-c-wednesday-19-u/

    Reply
  • Diane Westwell 1st December 2016

    Poor woman to look like that, she must have been very confident to sit for an artist… good for her !
    She does look like one of the courtiers in ‘Alice in Wonderland.
    Interesting post.
    Best wishes,
    ABCW team.

    Reply
  • Yorkshire Pudding 1st December 2016

    Most women in Greater Manchester look like that. (excluding Parrot women of course)

    Reply
  • Roger Green 2nd December 2016

    But was she beautiful on the INSIDE, my mother would say

    ROG, ABCW

    Reply
  • rhymeswithplague 4th December 2016

    I was not aware of this painting before today. It reminds me very much of a modern editorial cartoon of the politician caricature type. Could it be possible that Ugly Duchess is actually a lampoon of some male figure of the time such as we have seen through the years of the current Prince of Wales? Just wondering, not trying to be rude.

    Reply
  • rhymeswithplague 4th December 2016

    I was not aware of this painting before today. It reminds me very much of a modern editorial cartoon of the politician caricature type. Could it be possible that Ugly Duchess is actually a lampoon of some male figure of the time such as we have seen through the years of the current Prince of Wales? Just wondering, not trying to be rude.

    Reply

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