The Ugly Duchess: A Tale of Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance

by | May 15, 2023

This exhibition looks again at one of the best-known faces in the National Gallery: Quinten Massys’s 16th-century depiction of an old woman, a painting known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’

The Renaissance was a period of great artistic, cultural, and intellectual flourishing that spanned the 14th to the 17th century in Europe. It was a time of immense change and creativity, marked by the emergence of new ideas and beliefs, and a renewed interest in classical antiquity. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Renaissance was the way in which artists used their work to explore and comment on the society and culture of the time. This is evident in the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance.”

The exhibition takes its name from a painting by Flemish artist Quentin Metsys the Younger, known as “The Ugly Duchess.” The painting depicts an elderly woman with a distinctive, exaggeratedly large nose and a misshapen face. Despite her unconventional appearance, the woman is depicted wearing fine clothing and jewelry, suggesting that she is of high status and wealth.

Metsys’ painting is just one of many works featured in the exhibition that use satire and caricature to comment on the social and cultural norms of the Renaissance. The exhibition explores the ways in which Renaissance artists used their work to question the concept of beauty and challenge the conventions of the time. Many of the works on display depict unconventional, even grotesque, subjects in a way that challenges the traditional ideals of beauty that were prevalent in Renaissance art.

The exhibition also highlights the role of women in Renaissance art and society, particularly their representation in portraiture. Many of the works on display depict women who are unconventional or even unattractive by contemporary standards, challenging the notion that women should be idealized and objectified in art.

“The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” is a fascinating exploration of the role of art in challenging and subverting the social and cultural norms of the Renaissance. Through its focus on satire and caricature, the exhibition reveals the subversive power of art and its ability to question and challenge prevailing attitudes and beliefs. Whether you’re a fan of Renaissance art or simply interested in the way art can reflect and shape society, this exhibition is not to be missed.

Until 11 June 2023

National Gallery

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