A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery sheds light on the transgressive role of older women in the arts.

Written Marianna Serini, CNN

The 1513 portrait “The Old Woman” by the Flemish painter Quinten Masseys may well be one of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance. It is also one of the most atypical periods.

With wrinkled skin, a shriveled chest and deep-set eyes, the Masseys model, believed to be either a fictional folklore character or a woman suffering from an exceptionally rare form of Paget’s disease, looks elderly. But she’s not just old; she is grotesque. Her forehead is convex, her nose upturned and wide, her square chin is too prominent. Even her outfit is far from what one would expect from a renaissance lady of her age. Instead of modest, understated clothing, she wore a revealing plunging dress that showed off her cleavage (and those dimpled breasts).

She has none of the idealized qualities of other female figures of the era, such as Sandro Botticelli’s Venus or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Yet despite her appearance, the portrait, more commonly referred to as “The Ugly Duchess,” is so captivating that it made the old woman one of the most memorable figures of her time. Now, a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery, titled The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, aims to shed new light on her good looks.

For him, the Masseys painting will be presented along with its accompanying work, The Old Man, borrowed from a private collection, as well as other works by Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Jan Gossaert, featuring no less expressive older women, to explore how the female body, age, and certain facial features were ridiculed and demonized during the Renaissance.

massy "Elderly woman" displayed side by side "Old man" as part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

“The Old Woman” by Masseys is exhibited next to “The Old Man” as part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

“The Ugly Duchess is one of the most beloved and divisive works at the National Gallery,” exhibition curator Emma Capron said in a telephone interview ahead of the exhibition’s opening. “Some people love it, some people hate it, some people can’t watch it. I wanted to find this out, as well as explore how this and similar depictions of “disturbing” women – aging women who transcend classical beauty standards – actually serve to ridicule social norms and disrupt social order. Despite what you might think at first glance, these are strong, ambivalent and even joyful figures.”

Undermining conventions

For a long time, critics interpreted Masseys’ painting mainly as a misogynistic satire on female vanity and self-deception. Likewise, her scandalous appearance next to a man – perhaps her husband – who is clearly dressed more formally than she (even a little boring) has long been considered a travesty of marriage (she has seen her offer him a rosebud as a token of love, but raised his hand as if to show contempt).

This bust of an old woman, made in Italy by an unknown artist, illustrates the carnival character of women of a certain age.

This bust of an old woman, made in Italy by an unknown artist, illustrates the carnival character of women of a certain age. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

But, according to Capron, the picture is actually much more layered. “This is an elderly, ugly woman who questions the canons of normative beauty,” she explained. “With her exaggerated features, she symbolizes someone who doesn’t apologize for herself or what she’s wearing, and who doesn’t try to hide or be invisible.”

“On the contrary, it violates the rules of decency and how women of a certain age should behave. Her rebelliousness and irreverence seem completely modern – and that’s what made her image so enduring.”

Her position in relation to her partner also signals that she is not just the butt of jokes. In fact, the duchess stands to the right – to the left of the viewer – which in the double portraits of the period was the most elevated side and was usually intended for men. In essence, she takes the place of her male counterpart. “It’s like she’s turning the world upside down and making a difference,” Capron said.

She added that Masseys was probably well aware of the kind of reaction his excessive nature would cause. While mocking the old woman was certainly part of his concept for the piece, the artist also used the work to satirize the principles of classical art, mix high and low culture – a worthy genre of portraiture with the carnival figure – and turn the grotesque into the mainstream.

Similar ambitions were shared by many of his contemporaries. Two related drawings of the same memorable face, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and his chief assistant Francesco Melzi, also on display, point to the possibility that the Flemish artist based his paintings on the compositions of an Italian master who was similarly fascinated by the subversive potential , which items such as older women may have.

"Bust of a grotesque old woman. " Attributed to Francesco Melzi, Leonardo da Vinci's chief assistant, who historians believe created a copy of Leonardo's original work.  (1510-20).

“Bust of a grotesque old woman.” Attributed to Francesco Melzi, Leonardo da Vinci’s chief assistant, who, according to historians, created a copy from Leonardo’s original work. (1510-20). Credit: Royal Collection/HM King Charles III

Similarly, other exhibits, from the gloomy majolica (a type of Italian glazed earthenware) “Bust of an Old Woman” (c. 1490-1510), on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum, to Albrecht Dürer’s formidable “Witch Riding Backward on a Goat” (1498 –1500) — also shows how, for many Renaissance artists, “adult women provided a space for experimentation and play that simply could not miss depictions of traditional beauty and normative bodies.” I won’t allow it,” said Kapron.

Older women in art

Elderly women served not only satirical art. From ancient Roman sculptures to contemporary artwork, aging female figures have actually appeared in different guises by artists from all over the world.

“Against visual conventions and genres, older women have always been particularly attractive subjects,” art historian Freema Fox Hofrichter, who co-edited an entire anthology on Women, Aging and Art, said in a telephone interview. “With their wrinkles and droopy chests, furrowed brows and slender bodies, they have taken on a range of highly varied, often nuanced meanings far beyond caricature.”

Old women have been used as reminders of death and the unstoppable movement of time, from Hans Baldung Green’s Age of Woman and Death in 1541 to Francisco Goya’s disturbing Time and Old Women in 1810.

"Time and Old Women" Francisco de Goya.

Francisco de Goya “Time and Old Women” Credit: Limage/Corbis/Getty Images

They were rendered with sympathy and compassion to reflect wisdom, gentleness and dignity, as seen in Rembrandt’s paintings of old women from the early to mid-1600s, such as The Praying Old Woman (1629), in which the artist used light and a shadow to create a sense of depth and emotional intensity that emphasizes the spiritual devotion of the woman (probably his mother) and his respect for her faith; or The Old Woman Reading (1655), where the lived-in face of the elderly figure shows a gentle, gentle expression exuding warmth and care.

Often – in keeping with age-old notions of gender – they have come to represent sin and malevolence, as shown in the rich European witch iconography of the modern age, from Jacques de Gein’s Witches’ Sabbath, dating from around the 16th century. – early 17th century to “Macbeth”, act I, scene 3, Henry Fuseli’s strange sisters, circa 1783

“In all their various forms, they were the opposite of invisibility,” Fox Hofrichter said. “Through stereotypical images or positive associations, older women in art make us look, think and show us something new. There’s a lot of power in that.”

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as more women artists took to the field, the idea of ​​older women changed again. Their bodies, in particular, came to the fore unshakable, even resisting new ways and, most importantly, seen through the prism of a woman.

American artist Joan Semmel’s large-scale nude self-portraits are perhaps the best example of this, documenting her own body as it aged for decades. Semmel, now 90, began the project in the 1980s as a way to portray herself in a way that made her feel believable without idealizing or hiding the natural effects of aging, from saggy breasts to loose skin. The resulting work could not be further from the concept of traditional female portraiture, which puts youth and perfection above all else. Instead, they show viewers a woman coming to terms with her aging flesh.

Diane Edison, "Diana at 70" (2021).  Paper, pastel 44 x 30 inches.

Diane Edison, Diane at 70 (2021). Paper, pastel 44 x 30 inches.
Credit: Diane Edison / George Adams Gallery

African-American artist Diane Edison doesn’t shy away from exploring her personal history either, with uncompromising self-portraits that highlight her weathered face and body while balancing vulnerability and defiance.

The processing of old age was also carried out with the help of fantasy worlds. In the series My Grandmothers (2000), Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi asked a group of young women (and some men) to imagine themselves in 50 years, to challenge constructs about old age and their presumed ideas of what “old” might look like.

By focusing on wrinkles, folds and other physical features that come with age, these artists highlighted the ways that aging can shape and define a person, challenging the notion that youth is the only time worth celebrating and old age is something to be celebrated. fear or avoid.

Miwa Yanagi Sachiko from

Miwa Yanagi Sachiko from “My Grandmothers 2000” type C photo + text photo: 86.7 x 120 cm image/sheet; text: sheet 21.6 x 30 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Acquired with funds provided by Naomi Kaldor, Penelope Seidler, the Friedman Foundation, Peter and Thea Marcus, Candice Bruce and Michael Whitworth, Jeff and Vicki Ainsworth, Stephen Ainsworth, Gary Langsford, Luca and Anita Belgiorno-Nettis, and the 2002 Photography Collection Benefactor Program. © YANAGI Miwa Photo: AGNSW
Credit: Miwa Yanagi

“When older women appear on canvas, in film or in sculpture, they expand our understanding of what it means to grow old.” Fox Hofrichter said. “In a way, it makes them harder to capture and, as a result, more difficult for viewers. This is the essence of great art.”

Capron agrees. “Women are so often portrayed as either young and beautiful or old and invisible. But so many works of art prove time and time again that there are so many more gradients between them,” she said. And The Ugly Duchess is proof that even a caricature of an old lady can contain a lot.

The Ugly Duchess: Renaissance Beauty and Satire is an exhibition running from 16 March to 11 June at the National Gallery in London.