MASSYS, Quentin
(b. 1465/66, Leuven, d. 1530, Antwerpen)

The Ugly Duchess

Oil on wood, 64 x 46 cm
National Gallery, London

Massys is one of the most important portraitists of the age, thanks above all to his pictures of Erasmus and Pierre Gilles (Petrus Aegidius), the town clerk of Antwerp. His most astonishing work in this genre is certainly the Grotesque Old Woman, in the National Gallery in London. (This picture is also known as The Ugly Duchess, because Sir John Tenniel was later to use it in his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.)

Massys based his own picture on a caricature by Leonardo da Vinci. He was also influenced, according to Panofsky, by his friend Erasmus's book In Praise of Folly, in which the author describes old mad women who "still play the coquette", "cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors", and "do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts'. The effects of the huge ears, wrinkles, and ape-like face, are merely emphasized by the ridiculous hat. The sitter is made even more repugnant by the rich jewels she wears and the indiscretion of her low-cut dress. This picture is a prodigious exercise in the grotesque, in which Massys proves himself not only an astute critic of human vanity, but a worthy precursor of Goya and Picasso.