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Although the mystery behind The Ugly Duchess lent the work its intrigue, researchers have recently determined the possible medical reason for her appearance.

Bet you feel bad for calling her ugly now, don’t you? But let’s face it – no one escapes the harsh, critical eye of Western art history. Just ask all those poor, ugly Renaissance babies how they feel. After decades of interpreting this painting as satirical, social commentary, recent research has focused on the medical explanations for the physical attributes of the Duchess. Much like the artists learning alongside medical students in The Gross Clinic, scientific inquiry took the visual analysis of this painting to a new level.

The strange visage we see here was no metaphor that Matsys imagined. The Duchess actually looked like this, and for good reason. Most recently, scholars have claimed that her appearance is actually a result of a very rare form of Paget’s disease, which enlarges and deforms the bones. Although her face is most obvious in this work, her hands and collarbones would have suffered as well.

Despite understanding her medical history, scholars still can’t positively ID this woman. There are many theories, but none convincing enough to lead the pack, as there are some contradictions surrounding her. Like an accidental Apple Watch in the new Star Wars movie, her clothes are a bit anachronistic. Matsys painted her in 1513 but gave her the latest fashion – about a century too late. Her headpiece is gorgeous, but it’s so early-fifteenth-century.

Early ideas of her facial features being a moral message has obscured our ability to think of her as a real person. But we are no less captivated by her. We do know that Matsys painted a pendant piece for this portrait, intending for it to be one half of a diptych. Her partner in crime is known as The Old Man, and he is most likely Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. At any rate, Matsys was deep in the throes of exploring portraiture. He followed the footsteps of Netherlandish artists like Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck. He was also aware of the simultaneous innovations of Italian portraiture.

As scholars proved one aspect of this painting’s history, they debunked another. Researchers recently proved that even Leonardo da Vinci admired this bizarre artwork. It was widely assumed that Matsys based the Duchess on a work by the Italian master. After all, whose name did you more readily recognize? However, it is the opposite that scholars have recently proven true. Matsys and Leonardo both delighted in the strange and grotesque, and the two actually seemed to have maintained a correspondence, sharing sketches that they found amusing. Imagine that.



Also known as 'The Ugly Duchess", and thought by some to be an exaggerated portrait of Margeret, Duchess of Tyrol.  

Margaret married at age twelve to an eight year old blue blood, but that marriage hit the rocks when the eight year old turned out to be an incompetent ruler.  Margaret loved her country more than her husband, so she kicked him out and married someone else, without first getting a divorce.

This last detail did not sit well with the pope, who excommunicated her. The stories of her ugliness may have originated from the pope-camp, and she was given the nick name 'satchel mouth'. People on her side of the story have said she was actually quite beautiful.

The duchess in Alice in Wonderland was modeled on this painting.



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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Ugly Duchess

The Ugly Duchess (also known as A Grotesque Old Woman) is a satirical portrait painted by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys around 1513.

The painting is in oil on an oak panel, measuring 62.4 by 45.5 cm. It shows an old woman with wrinkled skin and withered breasts. She wears the aristocratic horned headdress (escoffion) of her youth, out of fashion by the time of the painting, and holds in her right hand a red flower, then a symbol of engagement, indicating that she is trying to attract a suitor. However, it has been described as a bud that will 'likely never blossom'. The work is Matsys' best-known painting.

The painting was long thought to have been derived from a putative lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, on the basis of its striking resemblance to two caricature drawings of heads commonly attributed to the Italian artist. However the caricatures are now thought to be based on the work of Matsys, who is known to have exchanged drawings with Leonardo.

A possible literary influence is Erasmus's essay In Praise of Folly (1511), which satirizes women who "still play the coquette", "cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors" and "do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts". The woman has been often identified as Margaret, Countess of Tyrol, claimed by her enemies to be ugly; however, she had died 150 years earlier.

The painting is in the collection of the National Gallery in London, to which it was bequeathed by Jenny Louisa Roberta Blaker in 1947. It was originally half of a diptych, with a Portrait of an Old Man, in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, which was lent to the National Gallery in 2008 for an exhibition in which the two paintings were hung side by side.

The portrait is thought to be a source for John Tenniel's 1865 illustrations of the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

A 1989 article published in the British Medical Journal speculated that the subject might have suffered from Paget's disease, in which the victim's bones enlarge and become deformed. A similar suggestion was made by Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Ugly Duchess

Comments (7)


1st time I looked at this: Uh huh. The title fits
Read the article: Well now I have to reflect on every single insulting thing I've ever said.


I did think the title was a bit unkind...

pogo agogo

I'm surprised scholar's can't identify this woman when she seems to have had such a distinguishing disfigurement at the time, especially one that's been painted!

Lorna Wright

Those Northern Renaissance guys sure had a "warts and all" approach. Did any other Italian Renaissance artists besides Leonardo do similar things? Or were they they all too focused on beauty and Plato?

pogo agogo

I feel like it's a specialty of Matsys to paint people in this way


Footnote: she looks like me, but we are not related.


So shall we call you Francisco of Tyrol? Or old satchel mouth? Or 'grotesque old man'?