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The Ugly Duchess

April 29, 2015
The Ugly Duchess, Quentin Matsys

The Ugly Duchess, Quentin Matsys, c. 1513

The Ugly Duchess isn’t a post-modern surrealist painting. Nor is it a cover from Mad Magazine or an R-rated version of the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a Renaissance masterpiece, created around 1513 by Flemish painter Quentin Matsys. No one knows who sat for the picture. Nor can anyone answer the really interesting question: Why did Matsys paint The Ugly Duchess?

Some think the painting satirizes older women who act like teenage beauties. The lady wears a low-cut dress and holds a red flower: a symbol of romance. So she seems ridiculous, as if Matsys were mocking Renaissance cougars.

The cougar theory, however, has some problems. To have any impact as a work of satire, The Ugly Duchess would need lots of viewers. The Renaissance had no National Lampoon, Charlie Hebdo, or even photographic reproduction. And who’d hang such a bizarre image in a public place, like a cathedral, palace, or town hall?

Plus, why would a work of satire need such detail? Even a casual glance tells us Matsys took great care with every line, shade, and — gulp — crevice. And modern analysis reveals that he corrected and revised as he worked, as if very carefully painting from life.

The Ugly Duchess may have inspired John Tenniel's 1869 illustration of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland.

The Ugly Duchess may have inspired John Tenniel’s 1869 illustration of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland.

It’s hard not to conclude that the ugly duchess was a real woman — possibly even a real duchess — painted to capture her features, not to make a point. And, yes, it’s possible she actually looked like that. Modern doctors have suggested she had an unusually severe case of Paget’s Disease, which deforms bones.

Maybe The Ugly Duchess was an act of cruelty by some nobleman with too much money on his hands, who made his deformed mother-in-law — or wife — sit for a humiliating portrait. Or maybe it’s just the opposite: an act of love by someone who wanted to honor a cherished relative … in all her grandeur. Or maybe the ugly duchess herself commissioned the portrait. If so, she had the courage to tell the world: “This is how I look, and I have the same right to beautiful clothes — and to show off my rack — as any other woman.”

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© 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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