Quinten Massys, “An Old Woman” (“The Ugly Duchess”) (about 1513), oil on oak. Bequeathed by Miss Jenny Louisa Roberta Blaker, 1947 (© The National Gallery, London)

The phrase is this (excuse my French): un embarras de richesse …

It means that there is far too much to be wondered at, praised, admired, coveted. Many great public galleries suffer (suffer?) from this problem. Take London’s National Gallery, for example. Do you start with the Vermeer, the great Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, or — perhaps best of all — the Rembrandt room, in order to experience a measure of exquisite pain as you contemplate brilliant evocations of human decrepitude, brown studies all?

Or are you perhaps going off in pursuit of some ill-defined sprite called Beauty? Often.

We go to Raphael for idealized beauty. But what if a painting were the opposite of beautiful, and utterly arresting for that very reason?

Welcome to the world of the 16th-century painting that is popularly known as “The Ugly Duchess.” It is now the centerpiece of an entire exhibition. The painting inhabits a small gallery space at the National Gallery, and the exhibition, The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, is befittingly modest in size — about 15 works in all. But as you stare at this painting once again, and reflect upon how it emerged and what it means, it begins to expand — and goes on expanding, in interest and importance.

One curious fact is that even on first encounter it likely looks vaguely familiar. Why should that be? Because in the middle of the 19th century a great, jobbing Punch cartoonist called John Tenniel was asked by the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Oxford, to illustrate a book of his called Alice in Wonderland, which he would go on to publish to great and ever-enduring acclaim under the name by which the world now knows him. Those wood engravings of Tenniel’s have embodied the very idea of Alice in Wonderland ever since.

Now there was a nasty piece of work in that book (in fact, there are several) called The Duchess, and she looks very like the painting in the National Gallery — especially when it comes to the headgear, which resembles a pair of horns. Horns often signify the Devil himself, and perhaps there’s more than a hint of maleficence here. When you look at Tenniel’s woodcut, you see that it’s a fairly close steal from “The Ugly Duchess” herself.

The painting was made by a man from Antwerp called Quinten Massys, and its likely date is 1513. Is it a portrait of a living person or not? It is tricked out to lure us into thinking that this might well be the case, so particularly has it been painted. Her hand rests on a marble ledge. The costuming is luxurious. 

Quinten Massys , “An Old Man” (about 1513), oil on panel. Private collection (photo © Evan Read, Department of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The answer is no. It is a piece of satire, inspired by, and part copied from, an image by Leonardo. The Leonardo original is lost. Luckily, his associate Francesco Melzi made a copy of it, and that copy was found bound into the pages of a 16th-century edition of the works of another great and merciless satirist called Francois Rabelais. That very copy is in this exhibition, open at the page. 

Leonardo made many such grotesques; we can see an entire panel of seven profiles (once again they are not the originals, but copies), all very small things, all created on a single sheet, on the gallery’s left-hand wall, facing glancingly toward the Ugly Duchess herself. 

They make we creatures of the present moment feel very uncomfortable because they make blindingly apparent that these lofty Renaissance masters were well practiced at the art of misogyny; of mocking the old and the poor; of spitting on a hag; of burning the witch and sparing the wizard. How vulgar they seem, consumed by impotent savagery and pathetic lusts. It is all very nasty indeed.

And the Ugly Duchess is part and parcel of this ignoble story of mockery and vilification. She is dressed in ridiculously outmoded clothes. The painter crawls over every inch of her flesh, every cavity, every sag and droop, every pit and wrinkle of her absurdly pneumatic breasts. What a laughable monster she is! What a perfectly calibrated study of unloveliness!  

Or look at this “Bust of an Old Woman” (c. 1490–1510) in Italian maiolica, another object of ridicule, with her sickly hung head …. Or spare a second or two in front of Dürer’s print called “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” of c. 1500. How irrepressible and sexually untamable she is. Such a woman upends the very moral order — it is surely for this reason that Dürer’s monogram is written in reverse. Only the brute cleansing of death is good enough for a wayward and dangerous creature such as this one.

What we did not know before is that the Ugly Duchess herself is one of a pair of paintings, identical in size and format, which hang side by side once again, so that we can compare and contrast. The companion piece is a man, also elderly. But he has been spared the rod. Though not beautiful, he is growing old with a degree of sobriety, without contempt and mockery being meted out to him. 

O lucky old man!   

Albrecht Dürer, “A Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” (about 1500), engraving. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (© V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Jan Gossaert, “An Elderly Couple” (about 1520), oil on parchment laid down on canvas (© The National Gallery, London)
Leonardo da Vinci, “Grotesque caricature heads of five men and two women” (1467–1519), pen and brown ink. The British Museum, London (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Quinten Massys, “An Old Woman” (about 1514–24), oil on panel (© The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp)
Israhel van Meckenem, after the Master of the Housebook, “The Unequal Couple” (about 1480–90), engraving. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)
Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, “The bust of a grotesque old woman” (c. 1510–20), red chalk on paper. The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III (Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023)

The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through June 11. The exhibition was curated by Emma Capron.     

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...