What a 16th-century painting says about beauty and ageing

With her gargoyle-like attributes, receding hairline, evident absence of teeth and wrinkled however cantilevered cleavage, “The Unsightly Duchess” makes Roald Dahl’s Mrs Twit look like a supermodel. (Even if the reserve was just lately rewritten to describe Mrs Twit as just “beastly”, not “ugly and beastly”.)

The early 16th-century painting (initially referred to as “An Previous Woman”) will attribute in the new National Gallery exhibition The Unpleasant Duchess: Attractiveness and Satire in the Renaissance, which opens on March 16 and explores historic perceptions of more mature women of all ages and the currency presented to youth and beauty. Even though it was painted by Flemish artist Quinten Massys as a satire directed at the supposedly comic figure of the vain, lascivious, experienced female, it appears to be that half a millennium later on attitudes to feminine ageing haven’t adjusted as much as we could possibly imagine.

Her age is not known, but there is a opportunity it could be equivalent to mine (I’m 45), particularly as women of all ages in the 1500s were considered to be previous it by 35 or 40. The understanding that I would be at peak “hag” if I had been back in the Renaissance produced me want to interrogate my visceral reaction to her.

I 1st saw the portray as a kid and was haunted by its grotesque eyesight of womanhood. It was the opposite of the people I desired to glimpse like developing up: Cicely Mary Barker’s ethereal Flower Fairies drawings, anatomically difficult Barbies, the pneumatic lifeguards of Baywatch, waifish Kate Moss.

But what particularly is the portray having at? Evidently it is problematically sexist, not just the Renaissance equal of a no-make-up selfie. According to the Countrywide Gallery catalogue: “It captures the emergence of the grotesque (in the primary sense . . . denoting the stunning, amazing, and comical) as a issue for painting . . . Viewers are invited to chuckle at her vainness, lust and self-delusion,” as properly as learn a ethical lesson at the similar time.

As a modern day viewer, although, I’m not sure how to go through the portray. Can it be noticed in a far more favourable way? I’m intrigued by curator Emma Capron’s see. “I in fact obtain her completely attractive,” she tells me. “This portray is a bit of a Rorschach test, some people today recoil, some love it for the reason that it is a mirror which is held up to your individual preconceptions.” I truly feel outrage at the artist and his implied look at of women, but I also see my individual panic about ageing ungracefully reflected back at me.

And many others immediately see a gentleman dressed in women’s garments. A similar figure to “The Unappealing Duchess” occurs in various Renaissance prints depicting a lewd carnival dance which highlighted an previous lady in a horned headpiece. Capron states “this folkloric character was frequently played by a male, which may reveal why the highly effective options and wide shoulders of ‘The Unappealing Duchess’ seem to be to contradict her generous bosom. But in any scenario she is an solely imaginary character and there is no far more to make of it than a purposeful and playful gender ambivalence which would have been comprehended at the time as including to her ugliness, then described as one thing that troubles neat classes.”

The portray belongs to an artwork custom that mocked more mature females, with a further well known case in point, Albrecht Dürer’s “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat”, also incorporated in the display. It turned recognized as “The Unattractive Duchess” right after it encouraged John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

It was at first conceived as one particular of a pair with “An Outdated Man”, but whilst he’s no Brad Pitt, he is not depicted in the exact cartoonish way. Given that “An Outdated Man” arrived back on to the New York artwork industry in the 1970s, there has been a consensus amid experts about the story guiding the duo. The lady is an early case in point of the offensive phrase “mutton dressed as lamb”, as she wears the stylish clothes of her youth in the hope of seducing the man: the rosebud she is keeping is a appreciate token.

Style is an vital aspect of the narrative here. The aged woman’s seem is “sooo last century” with her large hairline, extravagant horned headdress, and bodice laced at the entrance. Such bodices, in favour some 40 a long time prior to in the 1470s and 1480s, had been ordinarily covered by a gauze undercollar. Even so, the woman has long gone without in buy to attempt and add some Renaissance va-va-voom, disregarding the idea of “age-acceptable dressing” that even now lingers now.

The horned headdress harks again to the imposing medieval millinery worn by aristocratic girls in France and the Burgundian Netherlands all-around 1430, but by Massys’ time they were no more time no matter what the 1513 Flemish phrase for edgy was, and symbolised woman self-importance, the horns synonymous with the satan.

Painting of a man in a black hat, with a fur around his neck
‘An Aged Man’ by Quinten Massys, c1513 © Evan Read, Section of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork

This kind of ridicule of self-importance seems familiar now, with women in the general public eye obliged to tread a good line amongst creating an effort to seem excellent, but not trying way too tricky for dread of showing up narcissistic. Tries to self-enhance are endlessly analysed: Capron factors to the curiosity in Linda Evangelista’s CoolSculpting procedure that the model reported backfired and left her “permanently deformed” by raising not decreasing her extra fat cells.

The exhibition ties neatly into current discussions all over the way gals are represented in style and amusement. On the a person hand there’s a movement toward entire body positivity and compassion, and casting types of distinct ages and dimensions on the catwalk on the other, the rise of social media filters that render our faces youthful and flawless. Victoria Smith highlights the lengthy-operating opprobrium directed at ladies for failing to continue being younger in her new guide Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Ladies.

But Capron sees much more in “The Unattractive Duchess” than sexist satire. She identifies defiance, disruption of societal norms and hierarchies, and a humour we can chuckle along with, not just at.

Capron claims: “I asked myself as I was making ready the exhibition, will this just be a celebration of a misogynistic function? But addressing it in all its complexities is very beneficial. I believe it’s an image that operates on two stages and there is a thing extremely cathartic and liberating in looking at a lady of her age joyfully trampling on what culture expects of her, which is a diploma of invisibility. How many Renaissance paintings end individuals in their tracks in a gallery? Which is just one of the causes to grapple with the electrical power of this painting and the ability of the ugly as nicely as the stunning.”

Carola Very long is the FT’s deputy trend editor

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