Grotesque Old Woman (1513) by Quentin Massys. Located in the National Gallery, London, England.
Well, now. If having a “pleasing personality” is the consolation of the homely, then the subject of this portrait must have been extraordinarily good company. Nothing is known about the character of the “Ugly Duchess,” as it happens, but I imagine most viewers have a pretty clear idea about how desirable they would have found her company.
For she was, as far as art historians can tell, a real person, though her identity is unknown, as is her actual social status. The painting’s official title, Grotesque Old Woman, was superseded when illustrator Joseph Tenniel used her looks for his portrayal of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland; the association took, and the painting has assumed something of iconic status at the National Gallery in London. Recent research concludes that the painting, by Flemish master Quentin Massys, is not a copy of a lost “grotesque” by da Vinci, as long believed, but an original work, and that the sitter probably suffered from a rare form of Paget’s Disease, a bone-growth disorder.
Sadly, we have no idea if Massys approached her, or if she commissioned him to immortalize her singular features. Massys (also Messys, Matsys, Metsys, etc.) could turn out conventional portraits and religious works of great power and delicacy, but he had a taste for grotesques and caricature, evidenced by a number of lively pieces (notably the Ill-Matched Lovers in Washington, D.C.), though none is quite as astonishing as this study in unsightliness.
Mere Learned Prejudice?
Some time ago we discussed Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa [“Ugly as Sin,” January 2008]. In that work, the supposed paragon of hideousness does not appear especially ugly or horrible; look past her snaky hair and grimacing expression and she might pass for rather handsome (Caravaggio used a young boy as the model). But the Duchess is another matter altogether. If any visage could turn the beholder to stone, surely hers could.
When I show her to my art appreciation students, there are instant gasps and guffaws, to be sure, but I ask them to move beyond their spontaneous reaction and examine its basis. Whence comes the perception of ugliness? Or whence the humor?—for humor is the first point of approach for many of them. The piece strikes them as nothing more than a wild artistic joke, a bald satire on feminine vanity in the face of reality and advancing age. The Duchess is too old to dress so provocatively, students will protest, too ugly to pretend to any kind of appeal. They see her wistful gaze and the ironic rose in her gnarled hand—as if she expects romance to come her way—but the flower is a bud that will never blossom.
Fair enough, I say, but what specifically makes her appear ugly? Some students will dutifully trot out contemporary relativistic certitudes. The Duchess does not reflect the canons of beauty they have been taught “by their culture.” She is old, wrinkled, and lacks the face and figure of a runway model. Their aesthetic schooling defines such characteristics to be ugly, and they therefore obediently, irresistibly see her that way. Some will offer an alternative formulation of the same idea: She does not look like anyone they are used to seeing; she is not the norm or average; therefore she is ugly, with the unspoken minor premise that unfamiliarity breeds certain contempt.
All this of course is to situate beauty in the eye of the beholder, which I do not deny is one of its dwelling places. But, I challenge my students, do they really think they would find the Duchess beautiful if everyone looked like her, or if their culture had “taught” them to think otherwise? Do they think it possible that they could unlearn their lessons and see her with approving eyes? Or have they never found a stranger’s face (or a never-before-seen landscape or an unheard piece of music) just as instantly beautiful and appealing as hers is unappealing? And why should mere old age or wrinkles produce such a visceral response anyway?
I don’t propose to serve them up with incontrovertible answers, if any exist, to these questions, or even to deny the probable or partial truth of their explanations, but I press them to pay closer attention to just what they are responding to.
At this point someone will take notice of particulars like the expanse of her upper lip, the miniscule porcine nose, the flapping ears, the bulging forehead and receded hairline (the result of fashion, brought about by plucking), to say nothing of the odd head-gear, with its reminders of Mickey Mouse. Compared to the average human face, these together lack “proportion.” They are too big or too small, they don’t “belong together,” though indeed such judgments can only be made in comparison to a standard like an “average face” or “what we are familiar with” or some other as-yet-undefined ideal.
But proportionality is a key concept, in its several levels of meaning. Not a few of my students mistake the Duchess for a man in women’s clothes, for example, which is neither proportional nor proper—though why it should appear actually ugly in our eyes is an open question. Similarly, some may discern in her features bestial or subhuman elements incompatible with human dignity. Animal-human hybrids are the stuff of horror (except when they’re cute, like Mickey Mouse et al.). Things that transgress boundaries or blur distinctions, the almost-but-not-quite-human, are unsettling, in the way dolls and clowns or zombies can be unsettling. Yet the Duchess was fully human, for all that.
How Dare She?
My purpose in going through all this is to show that because our response to the beautiful or the ugly comes immediately and intuitively, it can easily remain unexamined and unquestioned. It requires a deliberate effort to take the self-critical step backward and to attend to the specific forms and realities that stir up our feelings. If we don’t, we may not realize that we have made some regrettable assumptions about the object before our eyes, especially when that object looks like this one.
Consider that on occasion a student will let out a howl at the sight of the Duchess and demand that I go straight on to the next slide; perhaps just now some readers were tempted to turn the page. Beauty attracts, but ugliness repels—that is its nature. But notice how smoothly being repelled flows into being irritated, angered, offended. Ugliness outrages. We judge it and find it at fault, guilty of a moral and not merely an aesthetic failing. How easy is it to blame someone like the Duchess for looking the way she does, as if she were responsible for her appearance, or had chosen it on purpose to affront us. “How dare she show herself in public. Why has she not made an effort to clean herself up? Why does she not look the way I would have her look?” It may be gracious but it is just as irrational to compliment people for their beauty, or to respond with a thank you when people tell us that they like our car or our clothes, as if we had designed and manufactured them ourselves.
Lookism, judging by appearances, is a sin of no recent vintage, of course. God alone judges the heart, but we cling tenaciously to the idea that an ugly face exposes an ugly soul. A thing that looks monstrous must be monstrous, and an aesthetic defect must reflect a spiritual flaw or actual sin. The prejudice is not without some possible justification: The soul is the form of the body, according to Aristotelian or Scholastic philosophy, and when God saw that everything he had created was good, was it not beautiful as well (the good and the beautiful being aspects of the same divine perfection)? Ugliness entered the world hand-in-hand with sin, when the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened. Our outrage at ugliness covers the guilt we feel for our own pervasive sinfulness. It is a shaming reminder that things weren’t meant to be—or to look—this way. We may be thankful then that our moral failings cannot be freely read in our features, or the world would appear a nasty place indeed. How many disfigured souls hide behind pleasant exteriors? The Ugly Duchess is no kin to Dorian Gray, yet she and he both, and all of us, carry the stain of sin in our hearts, if not necessarily on our faces.
Massys and his early Mannerist contemporaries helped launch the later Baroque fascination with the exceptional, the eccentric, and the abnormal, but our age is unsurpassed in its appetite for such things, or at least in its ability to appease that appetite. Television programs in particular have accustomed us to the sight of the exotic “other,” from families of “little people” to ever more extreme and pitiable specimens of the human condition. They and other media spectacles tread the uneasy ground between exploitative voyeurism and the noble goal to humanize those whom we would rather not see or acknowledge. That being said, the temptation to indulge in guilt-free mockery or silent condescension remains strong. Would we stare as much as we do if the Duchess were looking back at us, or if she were really here in our presence? Looking at her, even the most generous-hearted of us is probably at least faintly guilty of the Pharisee’s sin, given an aesthetic turn: “I give thanks to you, Lord, that I am not ugly like this woman.”
What was Massys’ intention in showing the world this poor woman? Was he merely cruel, making fun of a victim of the imperfections of the flesh? Was he a misogynist, jeering at women in general? Was he a moralist condemning vanity? Was he a humanist in love with every manifestation of the human? The works of art we call great do not usually provide simplistic answers, but if nothing else, Massys’ piece puts to rest the false requirement that art be beautiful to be worthy of the name. As a work of art, technically accomplished and sure of its means, “The Ugly Duchess” exhibits its own measure of beauty: “We call an image beautiful if it perfectly recreates the original, even it is an ugly thing,” says St. Thomas in the Summa.
The Duchess was a human being, a poor burdened creature, made after the image and likeness of the living God, and therefore as worthy to hold herself with some dignity, and to hope for happiness and respect, as any of us.