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The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in The Renaissance at The National Gallery

An Old Woman, ‘The Ugly Duchess’ reinterpreted and conserved for exhibition on Renaissance Satire.

The National Gallery today announced the upcoming exhibition The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, opening in spring 2023.

It will cast an unexpected light on one of the most famous, but perhaps also most misunderstood, paintings in the Gallery’s Collection, An Old Woman (about 1513) by Quinten Massys (1465/6 – 1530).

One of the most unforgettable faces in the National Gallery’s Collection, An Old Woman is better known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’ because she inspired John Tenniel’s hugely popular illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. As a result, she has long been associated with the world of fairy tale. For the first time, an exhibition will move away from the painting’s afterlife to focus instead on its original context, in particular its key role in the development of secular and satirical art during the Renaissance – two areas which Massys pioneered.

An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’) about 1513
Quinten Massys (1465/6 – 1530)
Oil on oak
62.4 x 45.5 cm
The National Gallery, London

At the core of the exhibition will be the exceptional reunion of An Old Woman with her male pendant, An Old Man (about 1513), on rare loan from a private collection in New York. The two works have only been displayed together once in their history, in the Renaissance Faces exhibition held 15 years ago at the National Gallery.

An Old Woman is being conserved for the occasion, revealing the full extent of its outstanding execution. New technical examination of both this panel and its companion will be undertaken in preparation for the show to explore their relationship and the process of their creation.

The reunion of An Old Woman with her male pendant will encourage visitors to rethink her appearance: clad in outdated and revealing clothing, she offers her partner a rose bud as a token of love, which he firmly refuses. At a time when outward appearance was broadly believed to reflect moral worth, the paintings appear to mock the vanity of the old and ugly who dress and behave as if they are still young. The woman is portrayed as an elderly temptress; her exposed breasts are a parody of the temptations of the flesh, while the horns on her headdress are devilish.

An Old Woman
Copy after Leonardo da Vinci 1510-20 (?)
Red chalk on paper
17.2 x 14.3 cm
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

The two panels parody the established genre of the double portrait, and in the exhibition they will be contrasted with examples from the Gallery’s holdings including Jan Gossaert’s Elderly Couple (about 1520), among other works.

The exhibition will also feature a related drawing after Leonardo da Vinci with the same unmistakable face, generously loaned by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection. This will be the first time the drawing and painting will be displayed alongside one another. Complemented by a small group of grotesque drawings by Leonardo and his followers, this will illustrate the lively artistic dialogue between Northern and Southern artists at the time and their shared interest in fantastical heads.  

Through a small selection of works in a variety of media, the exhibition will examine the ways in which older women were depicted during the Renaissance. In so doing, The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance will invite modern audiences to reflect on canons of beauty and examine the value still placed on women’s appearance today.  

The H J Hyams Exhibition Programme
Supported by The Capricorn Foundation

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