Flemish painter Quinten Massys’s “The Ugly Duchess (An Old Woman)” (1513) may have actually been portraying a man all along. In light of the 16th century-painting anchoring an exhibition at the National Gallery in London that opened last week, curator Emma Capron believes that “she is most likely a he,” citing the figure’s bone structure and dated accessories as well as the context of the artist’s inspirations.
It was long believed that the subject of the painting was indeed a woman suffering from Paget’s Disease. The telltale steep upper lip, elongated chin and jaw, and wrinkled skin along with the subject’s dated escoffion (Medieval horned headdress for female aristocrats) are the features that inspired Sir John Tenniel’s character illustration for the Duchess from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Capron refuted the claims that the Duchess was a woman suffering from any sort of affliction and referenced Massys’s fascination with carnivals, the premium location for cross-dressers and gender-benders at the time.
“It’s not Paget’s, nor any of the other suggestions like dwarfism or elephantiasis,” Capron explained to the Guardian when talking about the new research surrounding the Duchess. “I’m really reluctant, too, to have doctors going around galleries and giving diagnoses.”
The Duchess was reunited with its most probable righthand counterpart, Massys’s more realistic “Portrait of an Old Man” (c. 1517), for the first time for the exhibition. Capron also alleged that another sign of the Duchess’s true gender is hidden in the subject’s positioning, as men are usually assigned to the lefthand side of Renaissance portrait diptychs to signify their power. The male subject in Massys’s “Portrait of an Old Man” is situated on the righthand side with his hand held up, potentially refusing the small rosebud in the Duchess’s hand in an act of rejecting romantic advances upon the realization of the Duchess’s real identity. This theory remains unconfirmed as the two original frames were lost over time, adding an additional element of mystery regarding the intended display of the paintings.
While the Duchess’s facial features and stature resemble that of a man, one might consider the generous cleavage Massys depicted as confirmation of femininity. However, Capron states that the breasts, “with their brazen and scandalous cleavage, are a Massys fantasy,” circling back to the painter’s proclivity for the bizarre and satirical.
The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire is on view at the National Gallery until June 11. The exhibition seeks to shed light on how femininity and womanhood were portrayed and satirized during the Renaissance period and how such perceptions of aging, appearance, and worth are still relevant today. “When you look beyond the surface you may discover a Duchess who is also subversive, fierce, and defiant — brazenly flouting the conventions of her day,” the exhibition text reads, imbuing power within the Duchess’s portrayal.