There are beautiful paintings, and there are ugly paintings, but what if you mixed the two of them; a beautiful painting about something ugly? ‘The Ugly Duchess’ or ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’ does exactly that.
‘The Ugly Duchess’ is a painting painted by the Flemish artist Quinten Metsys in around 1513. There is a major shock value in the painting; the subject is an ugly, old woman who is dressed beautifully.
There is a comical element to it that comes from the satire with which the painting was painted. But this painting, despite having a bizarre and unsightly subject, has had a major impact on other artists.
This painting even inspired the great Leonardo da Vinci in making some of his works. More on that later, but first, let’s analyze the painting and see what we can find hidden beneath the ugly face and hopeful eyes.
Structure and Composition of ‘The Ugly Duchess’
The painting is a portrait of an old and visually unpleasing woman. The woman is dressed in a very old-fashioned way, even for the time when the painting was painted.
But this old woman is rich as visible from her aristocratic fashion, the gold emblem on her escoffion says a lot about the wealth of this woman.
The painting is very similar to the other works by the artist in terms of color and composition. The background is painted in light green and it is completely captured by the subject of the painting.
The reason why the subject takes the entire canvas shape is because the artist wants you to carefully look at the woman. From her wrinkles, and cheekbones, to her saggy breasts being tightly choked in the corset.
Infrared analysis of the painting showed that Matsys spent a lot of time working on the face to give it that ugly look. The amount of effort the artist put in can be seen in the gold emblem as well.
Analyzing the Ugly Woman
There is no other way of putting it sensitively; the woman in this painting looks ugly. The “ugliness” comes from many reasons. Firstly, the woman appears to be in her sixties.
Age is not the reason why this woman looks so bad in this painting. It is the disconnect between how old the woman is and how old she wants to look that creates the “ugliness.”
She is wearing outdated clothes, and that too in a way that does not compliment her body. It seems that the woman is stuck in her past, trying to be what she used to be.
You can see the wrinkles on her breasts; they are saggy but she has used the corset to prop them up. This “attempt” is what adds to the ugliness of the woman. She is trying to look way younger than she possibly can.
A Suitable Bride?
Not just her exaggerated facial features but what she is doing also adds to her ugliness. The woman has not been married and is looking for suitors. This is done to add the satire element to the painting.
The woman is all dressed up in the best way possible. She holds a red flower bud in her hands; a sign of looking for suitors to get married to. That’s why you get this comical element in this painting.
The reason why the painter has made her hold a red flower bud instead of a flower is to convey that this bud is not going to flower. Just like this woman’s efforts to get a suitor are not going to work.
Despite being shown in a satirical light, there is a serious element in this painting. While people look at this painting and all they can think of is the ugliness of the woman, there is something that they miss.
Look at the eyes of the woman. Matsys, while exaggerating the woman’s ugliness, made sure to keep her eyes as expressive and genuine as possible. The woman, despite being sad and ugly, shows a hint of hope.
The eyes show a glimmer of hope, a sign of expectancy. She genuinely believes that someone is going to come and take her as his bride. This adds an element of sadness to the painting.
If it was completely satire or mockery, the painting would not have the same effect as it does. The face and the dress of the woman make you want to laugh at the woman. Her eyes tell you not to.
The woman does not look good; that has been established already. But why is it that she looks so ugly? The artist has exaggerated her features, making them worse.
The elongated space between her nose and puckered lips. The massive chin connects the wrinkles and loose skin of the neck. The comically large ears and the small head. All these elements make the woman look ugly.
It is almost like the artist looked at an old man and then made him into a woman. But it is not just the face, but the shoulders and the arms are too stout and manly.
Researchers have claimed that perhaps the subject of the painting was a real person and the reason why she looks this way is because she might be suffering from a rare condition called Paget’s Disease.
Paget’s disease is a condition in which the skull deforms, completely changing the normal facial structure. So did the lady in the painting suffer from Paget’s disease?
Probably. Or maybe the artist was just trying to create a woman who looked ugly with these exaggerated features and looks. The whole idea of the painting is satire; to show how an ugly old lady is trying to get suitors.
For a long it was thought that the painting was inspired by some of the sketches made by Leonardo da Vinci. Vinci had made a collection of rough sketches of grotesque faces.
But later analysis revealed that Matsys had made the early versions of this painting before da Vinci made the sketch. Matsys and da Vinci shared sketches and drawings.
Apart from Leonardo da Vinci, this painting also inspired British illustrator John Tenniel who made the famous illustration of the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
The painting has had its influence, mostly because of its striking subject. Whether this woman was real or just a creation of the artist’s imagination, we cannot say.
But despite being ugly and the subject of satire, the Ugly Duchess has managed to inspire a lot of people. The woman did not look good but perhaps she was a good person on the inside?