The Ugly Duchess

grotesque head

The Ugly Duchess‘ (also known as ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’) is a satirical portrait painted by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys around 1513. It shows an old woman with wrinkled skin and shriveled breasts which are partially visible from her low-cut dress. She holds a red flower in her right hand, at the time a symbol of engagement, indicating that she is trying to attract a suitor. However, it is a bud that will likely never blossom. The work is likely drawn from two sources. One is Erasmus’s ‘In Praise of Folly,’ which satirises women who ‘still play the coquette,’ ‘cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors’ and ‘do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts.’

It also bears a resemblance to a caricature head drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was originally half of a diptych, with a ‘Portrait of an Old Man.’ The portrait is held to be the inspiration for John Tenniel’s 1869 drawing of the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 2008 it was claimed that the sitter, possibly Margaret, Countess of Tyrol, was suffering from a rare form of Paget’s disease, in which the victim’s bones enlarge and become deformed.

One Comment to “The Ugly Duchess”

  1. wow o_0 i almost thought I saw six fingers on that hand holding the flower. But yeah… very satirical, and scary too.

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