Home Museums The Renaissance portrait of “Ugly Duchess” probably depicts a man

The Renaissance portrait of “Ugly Duchess” probably depicts a man

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Quinten Massys, “The Ugly Duchess (An Old Woman)” (1513) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Ugly Duchess (An Old Woman)” (1513) by Flemish painter Quinten Massys may have depicted a man from the start. In light of the 16th century painting anchoring a exhibition at the National Gallery in London which 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 stiff upper lip, elongated chin and jaw and wrinkled skin along with the subject’s dated escoffion (medieval horned headdress for aristocratic women) 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 claims that the Duchess was a woman suffering from any kind of affliction and referenced Massys’ fascination with carnivals, the favorite hangout for transvestites and transgender people at the time.

Illustration by John Tenniel, published in 1865 in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s not Paget’s, or any of the other suggestions like dwarfism or elephantiasis,” Capron explained to the Guardian talking about the new research surrounding the Duchess. “I’m also very reluctant to have doctors walking around the galleries and giving diagnoses.”

The Duchess finds for the first time for the exhibition her most probable right counterpart, the most realistic “Portrait of an old man” by Massys (circa 1517). Capron also alleged that another sign of the Duchess’ true sex is hidden in the positioning of the subject, as men are usually assigned to the left side of Renaissance portrait diptychs to signify their power. The male subject of Massys’ ‘Portrait of an Old Man’ sits on the right side with his hand raised, potentially refusing the small rosebud in the Duchess’s hand in an act of rejection of romantic advances on the making of the true identity of the Duchess. This theory remains unconfirmed as the two original frames have been lost over time, adding an additional element of mystery regarding the intended display of the paintings.

Quinten Massys, “Portrait of an Old Man” (circa 1514-1524) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

While the Duchess’s facial features and stature resemble those of a man, one could consider the generous cleavage depicted by Massys as a confirmation of femininity. However, Capron asserts that the breasts, “with their cheeky and scandalous cleavage, are a Massys fantasy”, recalling the painter’s propensity for the bizarre and the 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 femininity were portrayed and satirized during the Renaissance period and how these perceptions of aging, appearance and value are still relevant today. “When you look beyond the surface, you may discover a Duchess who is equally subversive, fierce and defiant – brazenly flouting the conventions of her day,” reads the exhibit text, empowering to the portrait of the Duchess.

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