by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers
The art world has, over the years, attached yet another adjective to the title of this work: Grotesque, Old Lady. The word "grotesque" means: "by a strong exaggeration or distortion peculiarly exaggerated, appearing ridiculous." Both of these apply to the sitter, and yet this does not tell the whole story about the portrait of a stranger.
The bust portrait shows an elderly lady with an extremely striking physiognomy. She has a long, protruding forehead and a short snub nose with very prominent upturned nostrils.
She is also depicted with an elongated upper lip and a pinched mouth that appears to be toothless. She has a severely sunken chin and wrinkled and pockmarked skin. There is also a wart on her right cheek with several hairs on it. Her thin hair is tucked behind her protruding ears. She has a short neck and wears a dress that reveals a lush, wrinkled cleavage. The clothes, the headgear as well as the jewellery she wears are aristocratic in nature. Strictly speaking, she is wearing the Burgundian style of dress worn by ladies between the 14th and 15th centuries. Since the painting was made in 1513, her garb was anything but en vogue. Nor was it proper to display her breast in this way at the time. So, besides her face, Massys added other grotesque details to his work that are not immediately obvious to the modern viewer. The red rose in the lady's right hand and the embroidered carnations on her headdress must also be classified as irony. Both flowers symbolise the courtship of a spouse, stand for love. The fact that the rose is depicted in the form of a bud that has not yet blossomed is in maximum grotesque contradiction to the lady's age and appearance. Obviously, the lady is already past her prime.
The portrait was executed as a diptych. The counterpart shows an older gentleman in profile. The two works together, however, appear incongruous to the viewer - the execution of the portraits and the background differ immensely! The portrait of an old man is in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, our main work in the National Gallery in London.
The work has also served as an important source of inspiration at least twice. One was none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. Massys and da Vinci were in a lively exchange about their works. It was long assumed that Da Vinci had inspired Massys, but today the majority of scholars believe that it was the other way around. Da Vinci's Grotesque Head is part of a collection of drawings of bizarre figures that the artist had studied.
More popular than da Vinci's drawing, however, may be the depiction of the Ugly Duchess from the fairy tale Alice in Wonderland. John Tenniel gave the figure described by Lewis Carroll the appearance of a very small, fat lady with a huge face. She bears the features of the grotesque old woman and is also crowned with a horned bonnet.
However, for all the fantasy attributed to artists, the appearance of the lady depicted here is very probably based on a real bone disease. Ostitis deformans is a skeletal disease in which uncontrolled bone remodelling and subsequent thickening of the bones occur. Patients usually suffer from a then deformed appearance. Unlike today, people with deformities were shamelessly made a laughing stock of society for centuries. Massys also does not inspire our compassion, but caricatures the sitter for our amusement.
In conclusion, the lady's toothless mouth seems to contort into a very gentle smile. Perhaps Massys also let her laugh a little at herself.
Quentin Massys - The ugly Duchess / An old woman
Oil on wood, c. 1513, 62.4 x 45.5 cm, National Gallery, London
Quentin Massys - Portrait of an Old Man
Oil on wood, c. 1517, 48 x 37 cm, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris
Leonardo da Vinci - Grotesque Head
Red chalk on paper, c. 1480 - 1510, 17.2 x 14.3 cm, Windsor Castle, London
John Tenniel - Illustration for Alice in Wonderland