How to Read Paintings: The Ugly Duchess by Quinten Massys
This is one of the most extraordinary paintings in the history of art. But why would an artist choose to paint it?
Popularly known as The Ugly Duchess, the image shows an ageing woman. Perhaps you wouldn’t guess it at first, but this woman has a glint of love in her eyes.
As you look at the painting, you become conscious not only of her misshapen features — her large ears, warped skin and exaggerated upper lip — but also of her ostentatious clothing.
She is dressed to catch the eye. She wears an ornate double-horned headdress, known as an escoffion, a form of headwear fashionable during the Late Middle Ages. From the headdress, a drape of white gauze or silk falls in ruffles over her shoulders.
Her tightly laced dress pushes her breasts upwards, wrinkling the flesh to echo the wrinkles in her neck. She smiles, while her skin is marked with broken veins and pimples, and hairs spout from the wart on her cheek.
But what of its meaning? How do we make sense of a painting like this?
The first clue is in her right hand: the woman offers a rosebud, connoting passionate love and also a symbol of engagement. In other words, she is looking for a lover. Yet the rosebud is tightly closed in on itself, indicating that her attempts to attract a suitor will sadly come to nothing.
The most conspicuous clue to the meaning of the painting is in her heart-shaped headdress, which she wears over her hair, festooned with a large gold brooch decorated with roses and set with a diamond and pearls.
Had the painting been made 100 years before, then this woman would have been at the height of fashion. But, alas, the year is 1513 and her escoffion is frankly passé.