One 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.