REVIEW | The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance – National Gallery, London

The Ugly Duchess at the National Gallery is a shockingly good display. The highlight is undoubtedly the reunion of Quinten Massys’ An Old Woman with its pendant pair An Old Man (private collection). But the latter is also joined for the first time with its smaller oil-on-paper version (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), made either as a preparatory study or a record of the panel painting.

The exhibition is fleshed out with grotesque drawings by and after Leonardo da Vinci. One of these of a grotesque old woman directly inspired Massys’ painting; we are presented with two contemporary copies of the lost original, hung next to the iconic painting itself. The reunions end here and they are glorious.

But the better works, in my opinion, are the pieces selected to provide context for illustrating the theme of beauty and satire in the Renaissance. My personal highlight is the other Massys painting in the room, also of an old woman (The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp), who looks absolutely terrifying, almost skeletal. The Ugly Duchess looks comical compared to this ghastly depiction. It shares a wall with Durer’s engraving of a witch riding backwards on a goat, one of the earliest known depictions of a witch represented as a hag.

Two sculptures of old women enter the fray here: one Italian maiolica and a German one carved from pearwood. The former looks like a satirical joke, particularly when you notice her toothless smile. The latter is a much more realistic and moving depiction of a naked body suffering from the physical effects of old age.

On the other side of the room, Jan Gossaert’s double portrait of an elderly couple is joined by a similar engraving from the great Israel van Meckenem. However, the latter depicts an old woman consorting with a young man, a satire of lustful old age and unequal love; money has in fact changed hands here. The same theme has also been explored in a grotesque drawing by Leonardo (Royal Collection Trust, Windsor).

This display is admirable for its cross-cultural analysis of Massys’ elusive, hybrid painting, and does so effortlessly in a small space. It’s hard to say which is better: the rare reunions of related works, or the noteworthy comparisons being shown to us.

The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance runs until 11 June 2023 at the National Gallery, London,


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