The Ugly Duchess is on show at Poppyland Brewery
46 West St, Cromer NR27 9DS
An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’), 1513
Oil on oak, 62.4 × 45.5 cm
This must be one of the most striking studies in ugliness in Western painting. An elderly woman with a very short nose and an exceedingly long upper lip rests one hand on a marble parapet. Her skin is pimply and wrinkled, and she seems to have lost her teeth. In spite of her hideous appearance, she is elegantly and aristocratically dressed, although by the time this picture was painted her clothes would have been many years out of date.
This painting is part of a pair: her ‘other half’ is in a private collection in New York. They are satirical portraits, mocking the vanity of the old and ugly who dress and behave as if they are still young. The woman is an elderly temptress, offering her partner a rosebud, which itself has sexual connotations; her exposed breasts are a parody of the temptations of the flesh, and the horns on her headdress are devilish.
Massys was the leading painter in Antwerp in the early 16th century. He was born in Louvain and his earliest works show the influence of Memling, who had been active in Bruges. His later works show some Italian influence, particularly that of Leonardo. He was notable as a portraitist as well as a religious painter.