New Analysis Reveals That the Famed ‘Ugly Duchess’ Renaissance Painting May Not Depict a Woman After All

A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London is taking another look at Flemish artist Quinten Massys’s mystifying 1513 painting An Old Woman, popularly known as The Ugly Duchess.

According to a statement in the exhibition catalogue, the figure in the 16th century work “challenges every traditional canon of beauty.” It describes “an elderly woman with lively eyes set deep in their sockets, a snub nose, wide nostrils, pimply skin, a hairy mole, bulging forehead, and a prominent square chin.”

But not everyone agrees. In “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” (on view from March 16 through June 11), curator Emma Capron advocates for a different read of the enigmatic work. The leading expert in Renaissance art is making the case that the old woman is not a woman at all.

“She is most likely a he, a cross-dresser as a play on gender,” Capron told The Guardian. “We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women.” Indeed, notes the statement in the catalogue, a festival dance known as the moresca—in which a sought-after young woman would “often be played by a cross-dressed man”—was popular in Northern Europe at the time.

Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, ‘The bust of a grotesque old woman’ (1510-20). Red chalk on paper. The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, The Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman (1510-20). The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

The work has hung in the National Gallery for more than 80 years, where it is one of the museum’s “best-known faces.” Informally, it is referred to as The Ugly Duchess as it served as the inspiration for Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations of the mercurial duchess in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 children’s classic.

Over the years, medical experts have contended that the subject suffered from Paget’s disease, in which bones weaken and eventually become disfigured. But Capron takes a different view. “It’s not Paget’s,” she said, “nor any of the other suggestions like dwarfism or elephantiasis.” Rather, “[Massys’s] images, sometimes grotesque, sometimes simply fanciful and satirical, are partly metaphors for the social disorder of the time,” explained Capron. He is also “just having fun.”

Furthermore, the exhibition claims that a drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci’s lead assistant Francesco Melzi, called The Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman, was the basis of Massys’s An Old Woman. Melzi’s image, on loan from the Royal Collection, is thought to be a copy of a lost original by Da Vinci’s own hand. Familiar with the exaggerated physiognomic types popularized by Da Vinci, Massys adapted the woman’s visage from one of the Italian master’s own caricatures.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Satire on Aged Lovers (ca. 1490). The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

There is another piece to the puzzle. An Old Woman is one of a pair of paintings by Massys; the companion piece is An Old Man. They are reunited in the exhibition. However, the woman is on the left, whereas in most Renaissance paintings their positions would have been reversed. The woman is also holding a rosebud—a flower with sexual connotations—as a token of her love. Here again the roles are reversed. The gesture went unrequited as the man has his hand raised, seemingly rejecting the romance she is offering.

It “may be another clue that An Old Woman is a man in woman’s clothing,” noted Capron.


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The Guggenheim’s New Show of All-Star Photoconceptualism Questions Official Records and How We Depict the Past

“Fake news” will be a tempting aperture through which to approach “Off the Record,” a new group show at the Guggenheim that looks at the ways in which artists consider, critique, or otherwise manipulate “official” documents of history and state power. 

It wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to take that tack. But it’s not what was on curator Ashley James’s mind as she organized the show—her first since becoming the museum’s first full-time Black curator in 2019.

“I’m less interested in speaking to the specificities of our contemporary historical moment than in thinking about a certain position in relationship to history as such,” she tells Midnight Publishing Group News over the phone. She pauses as construction noises from the show’s installation clang behind her.

“It’s about a point of view,” she continues as the din dies down. “It’s about a kind of posture toward history and documentation that is something that’s applicable to the past, to the present, and to the future. It’s more about a methodology.”

Sara Cwynar, <i>Encyclopedia Grid (Bananas)</i> (2014). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Sara Cwynar, Encyclopedia Grid (Bananas) (2014). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Heavy on photoconceptualism, “Off the Record” comprises some 25 works—all but one of which were pulled from the museum’s own collection—from artists including Sadie Barnette, Sarah Charlesworth, Hank Willis Thomas, and Adrian Piper. It’s a group that represents a wide swath of generations, interests, and artistic practices. What unites them here, explains James, is a shared “skepticism of received history.”  

But how that sense of skepticism manifests in the work varies with each artist. For Sara Cwynar, represented in the exhibition by three pieces from her 2014 Encyclopedia Grid series, it’s an intellectual exercise. Taking a cue from the John Berger classic Ways of Seeing, the artist has culled various pictures of the same subject (bananas, Brigitte Bardot, the Acropolis) from multiple encyclopedias and rephotographed them—a process that shows us, without judgment, the representational quirks and biases of the supposedly objective resources. 

Sadie Barnette, <i>My Father's FBI File; Government Employees Installation</i> (2017). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Sadie Barnette, My Father’s FBI File; Government Employees Installation (2017). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Lisa Oppenheim, meanwhile, sees creative potential in the document’s deficiency. For a 2007 photo series, the artist reimagined details redacted from a group of Walker Evans’s Great Depression-era negatives, which were hole-punched to prevent publication. Oppenheim’s own small circular photographs, paired next to Evans’s originals, read as a kind of revisionist history—albeit one that is just as flawed as its source material.

Other examples are more charged, such as prints from Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic 1995-96 series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” in which the artist appropriates ethnographic photos of enslaved people to show how photography was used to reinforce racial inequality. Each is paired with a pointed phrase: “DESCENDING THE THRONE YOU BECAME FOOT SOLDIER & COOK,” reads one.

Hank Willis Thomas, <i>Something To Believe In</i> (1984/2007). © Hank Willis Thomas Photography. Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Hank Willis Thomas, Something To Believe In (1984/2007). © Hank Willis Thomas
Photography. Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Like these examples, almost all of the artists in the exhibition draw on material from generations past. But that’s not to say that the show doesn’t have something to say about the contemporary moment, James points out—even if its message has little to do with the Trump era specifically. 

Best exemplifying this is the one work in the show that doesn’t belong to the museum’s collection: a 2020 wall-hung assemblage by Tomashi Jackson, in which an archival print of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act is overlaid with paint and campaign materials for a 2018 gubernatorial race. 

It’s a piece that literally fuses the past with the present, the “official” with the unofficial. And it alludes to another theme that ties together the various pieces in the show: “power,” says the curator, ”whether that power is because of the institution itself or power in a narrative that has been received in a certain way over time.” 

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