Ugly and Beautiful

By Jo Phillips

In a world where recent discussions as to whether or not to remove words like Fat or Ugly from famous children’s books have sparked quite the discussion, the National Gallery’s showing of its infamous painting, The Ugly Duchess (aka A Grotesque Old Woman) may further open up this debate, regarding content and what is acceptable in our current age. Seen very much a  satirical portrait painted by the male Flemish artist Quentin Matsys around 1513, it can be seen to many cruel; a mocking of ‘size’ ‘beauty’ ‘age’ and ‘sexuality’. It potentially also opens up further the debate as to at what point women become ‘almost invisible’ after the flush of youth comes a period of middle age never really celebrated up until old age comes. Both ends of the spectrum are presented with preconceived ideals, the flush of youth, or the wicked old lady. Is this thinking still alive and present? and how timely is this exhibition in our ongoing reflection on what we find acceptable? Find out more in Ugly and beautiful

It’s not just in art, and art of a certain period, but across literature, TV film and even music, that limitations are built around women. This new exhibition at The National Gallery The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance will open in the National Gallery throwing open a lot of thoughts worth debating.

At the heart of this new exhibition will be the reunion of An Old Woman (belonging to The National Gallery) with her male pendant, An Old Man, on rare loan from a private collection in New York. The two works have only been shown together once in their history, 15 years ago.

The cornerstone of the irony is the comparison of the woman, dressed in garments far too old, the suggestion as these are out of fashion for the time of the painting as if she is harking back to her more youthful days. Her highly exposed yet craggy breasts, again are exposed, far more than would have been seen as appropriate for the time of the painting. Her face ‘masculine’, gruff, purposely unattractive? But probably the most mocking of all is the flower she seems to be offering the man in these joined-together images. The rosebud the flower signifying love here never fully opened, as if she would never have fulfilled her love because of her own unattractiveness. Too fat, too ugly, and now too old to be deserving of love, even hinting in a scornful way at her own delusions of self.

His response to her seems to be his hand up as a rebuke. Yet he is no ‘oil painting’ his representation far kinder. Also ageing but his clothes black, with fur trim, a head covered, a ring on his thumb all give the sombre mood of an elderly respected man. The picture seems to lack the mockery of the women. It says so much about how women past ‘their prime’, ‘their flush of youth’ were seen at this point in time. Yet does this view still exist?

Youthful beauties or old hags. So has much changed? Firstsite gallery’s recent exhibition Big Women curated by artist Sarah Lucus talked with her friend, and fellow artist Kate Boxer,

I can’t put an exact age on when we stop being ‘Miss or ‘Señorita’ and start being ‘Madam’, or ‘Señora’, but by the time you’re in your mid-fifties you’ve definitely arrived.

Although there are other paintings on show at the exhibition that are far kinder to women and elderly people, certainly more ‘respectable’ Massy’s work shown here parodies the dignified genre of partnership portraits, particularly in a cruel way for this particular lady.

Even though other women fare better, this particular painting holds up much of how women may well have been thought of and so not often painted, written about or even celebrated.

Women in much of the media, olden to present day, seem to play two roles only. The young glowing youthful (ready to impregnate) slip of a girl recently reaching an age acceptable to become married and embrace motherhood. The other end of the scale, old women as fat ugly witches, evil, nasty, withered and past any kind of usefulness save for their wicked spells.

It seems in the world of art, women between the early 30s all the way to mid to late 70s are just invisible. Whereas men of this age are seen as ‘distinctive’ praised for their achievements are represented as ‘charismatic’ held up as dignified, and even painted in more flattering terms.

Even in today’s world outside of a handful of older female news readers, how often are women portrayed as successful elegant middle-aged women? Not often enough in comparison to their male counterparts. It may well be better than the Renaissance counterparts but it still lags. Middle age women are still often portrayed as fat ugly and stupid. Yes there are women CEOs, and yes women have run countries but these are the tiny few… there is still a long way to go.

The Ugly Duchess here in this new exhibition opens up a debate for us all. By incorporating other images of its time and highlighting if anything far kinder representations of women and age like Jan Gossaert’s Elderly Couple (about 1520) we are able to put context around the work.

No one really knows if the woman represented in The Ugly Duchess was a real lady or just an imagined one, there has been much debate on many aspects of the image. There is talk of her having Paget’s disease, which would explain the deformity of her face. Also, there is a school of thought that believes the original sketch also on show was created by Leonardo Di Vinci.

Although the image itself may not be commonly known it served as a basis for John Tenniel’s illustrated depiction of the Duchess (Queen of Hearts) in Lewis Caroll’s 1865 children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

Interestingly as well is the fact that Matsys was a painter known for his religious work, a deeply committed Christian living in a time when his home town swapped between Catholics and Protestants his religious works including large biblical paintings and altarpieces were reverent and pertinent. His works were known for the intricacy of detailed faces and bodies and highly detailed bodily ornamentation yet without hugely decorated backgrounds.

His other works, when he became a master in the guild of painters at Antwerp that he is possibly equally known include satirical works including A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514), all of which provide commentary on human feeling and society in general. Filled with much of his emotive feelings towards the subject the painter with each stoke seems to judge the subject, except that is, for his religious paintings.

And maybe that is the point, as a painter he presented to the world, forever captured on canvas, its view of women of a certain time of a certain age, unmarried, lonely, to be seen as laughing stock. But now at least we understand the context and can view it with far kinder eyes.

Matsys was active in Antwerp for over 20 years, creating numerous works with religious roots and satirical tendencies. He is regarded as the founder of the Antwerp school of painting, which became the leading school of painting in Flanders in the 16th century. Flemish painting flourished from the early 15th century until the 17th century, gradually becoming distinct from the painting of the rest of the Low Countries,

Flanders as a city of course has many great artists pass through its gates including the likes of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Gossaert, and Anthony van Dyck, to name but a few.

The geographical area that makes up Flanders includes Brugges, Gent, Antwerp, and Brussels as its capital city. Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. It has over ten key art museums and makes for a wonderful area to visit.

In Antwerp for example find

The Fine Arts Museum Antwerp KMSKA is a fine example. It holds seven centuries of art from Flemish Primitives to Expressionists. World-famous masters. The largest and most important collections of James Ensor and Rik Wouters. The museum is currently renovating the Lamentation Altarpiece, by Massys at their Conservation Studio.

Although at the moment this place is closed for renovation Rubens House in the heart of Antwerp, is the home of Peter Paul Rubens, the famous 16th-17th–century Baroque painter. The house is so perfectly preserved, speaks volumes of just how wealthy and famous he was during his lifetime. The details, textures and colours paint a vivid vista of his daily life including his painting spaces.

Mayer van den Bergh Museum houses a unique collection of art from Belgium and abroad. This was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, a 19th-century connoisseur who collected art virtually full-time.

Hotels and eateries are varied and plentiful. A very multicultural city Antwerpts newest Hotel is a fully vegan site, The Sapphire House Hotel a neo-gothic building exudes character and the spirit of hundreds of years of trade and has welcomed guests since the 16th century period when the hotel was called “Den Grooten Robijn” The Great Ruby, a reference to the Gem trade of the city. Located next to the hotel is the 16th-century building, the old stock exchange where restaurant fiera breathes the history of the Golden Age of Antwerp.

A quick train ride to Brussels centre for more food, walking cobbled streets, old architecture sitting next to modern to find The Old Masters Museum at the Museum of Beaux-Arts Belgium in Brussels with a remarkable collection of Old Masters, witnessing a rich and creative past, covers a period running from the 15th to the 18th centuries. See Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Sir Peter Paul Rubens and other important works by Quentin Matsys.

Back in Antwerp in 1629, the first centennial of Matsys’ death was marked by a ceremony and the erection of a relief plaque with an accompanying inscription on the facade of the Antwerp Cathedral.

Nearly 500 years later London’s National Galleries gives many more the chance to view and observe the works from this artist that are one end deeply religious and at the other end more than just satirical portraits. It is the chance to absorb, to ponder a moment in time, one worth reflecting on. Surely people will do the same looking back at the works we leave behind 500 years from now and have opinions on our size our sense of beauty and our sense of sexuality? and finally, can something that is ‘ugly’ also be beautiful?

If you enjoyed reading Ugly and Beautiful why not read A Queer View Here

The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance at The National Gallery now.

The Fine Arts Museum Antwerp KMSKA.

fiera Restaurant

Rubens House

Mayer van den Bergh Museum

Old Masters Museum at the Museum of Beaux-Arts Belgium

Sapphire House Hotel

For more information on visiting Flanders and Antwerp visitantwerphere

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