Skip to content

“The Ugly Duchess”: the Enigma of the portrait of a woman deformed by a rare disease (or not?)

Probably, before devoting himself to painting, Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) was a blacksmith.
However, perhaps to conquer his future wife, who was seeing a painter more romantic than a blacksmith, or perhaps because of a much more prosaic illness that prevented him from being at the forge, Quentin devoted himself to art, and his stupendous realism often slipped towards a satirical and grotesque representation.

His best known work (although not the most important) is a portrait called “An Old Woman Grotesque”, more commonly known as “the ugly duchess”, painted in 1513 and still today one of the most popular paintings in the British National Gallery.
In fact, the woman in the portrait certainly does not appear attractive!
But the details highlighted by the painter, such as the wilted breasts sadly exhibited by a deep neckline or the red flower held in the right hand to indicate the search for vanity, transform the portrait into a caricature. It could have been a satirical work to the detriment of those women who, despite their age, did not renounce “provocative” attitudes, or, as Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote in those years and satirizes women who “still play the coquette“, “cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors” and “do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts“. (In Praise of Folly, 1511).


So much so that many have identified the Ugly Duchess with the Countess Margaret of the Tyrol, who lived a couple of centuries before the painter. It is true that the very religious artist may have heard (badly) of the Countess, a woman of bad reputation, nicknamed Maultasch (a traditional German dish), or “vicious woman” in popular language. While his contemporaries described her as exceptionally beautiful, the nickname given to him by his enemies by virtue of his bigamy, made her then go down in history as a person with deformed features.

But perhaps the poor Countess of Tyrol has nothing to do with the Ugly Duchess, which could instead be the realistic portrait of a woman who suffered from a rare disease, a metabolic abnormality that enlarges the bones in a very advanced form.
The disease was first noted in the 19th century by the surgeon Sir James Paget who was the first to describe it. The painting was investigated by surgery professor Michael Baum who despite being a great admirer of the Duchess, had also professionally approached the portrait after wondering why anyone would bother painting this clearly grotesque image.
The “very, very unlucky” woman had been strangely struck in different parts of the body: in addition to a deformation of the jaw bones, the disease had spread to the forehead, to the orbits, to the chin, up to the hands and the clavicles.
The woman in the portrait could therefore be the same commissioner of the work, probably paid handsomely, because, Baum wonders, “who would have bought such a painting?” Among other things, the work was part of a diptych, together with the less known “Portrait of an old man”.

If the hypothesis of a realistic portrait is correct, a firm belief in the painting is also reversed. It was thought that the Flemish painter was inspired by a caricature drawing attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci. In light of the new studies, in this case it could have been the great Leonardo who found Matsys’ work interesting.
Leonardo made several caricature drawings called “Grotesque Paintings” between the end of the fifteenth century and the first decade of the sixteenth century. The hypothesis that Leonardo saw Matsys’ painting and copied it onto a sketch is bold but plausible.

Grotesque Head, Leonardo Da Vinci.

Moreover, the portrait is thought to be a source for John Tenniel’s 1869 illustrations of the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In fact, she has very similar features to the woman in the portrait of Matsys, a grotesque rather unwelcome character to Alice, who found her “very ugly”.
And how could she blame her?

In the year 2008, The Duchess was exhibited along with numerous other Renaissance works at the National Gallery. Ironically enough, she was placed among the portraits of great belles such as “La Bella” by Palma Vecchio….

%d bloggers like this: