Now We Are Seventy
Portrait of an Old Woman by Quentin Massys (Matsys) 1466-1529
The Portrait of an Old Woman pictured above is also known as The Ugly Duchess, perhaps because Tenniel used this painting as a basis for his drawing of the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. While it has been suggested that there is a connection with a real-life duchess of dubious character who lived in the 14th century, a more likely theory was proposed in 2008 suggesting that the painting depicts an actual woman who has Paget's disease.
Wikipedia describes this picture as '... a satirical portrait painted by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys around 1513. It shows a grotesque old woman with wrinkled skin and withered breasts (partially visible from her low-cut dress). She wears the aristocratic horned headdress of her youth, by then out of fashion, and holds a red flower in her right hand, at the time 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 entry quotes the In Praise of Folly of Erasmus (a noted misogynist) as a possible source, '...which satirises women who "still play the coquette", "cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors" and "do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts"'. Wikipedia's description is almost as misogynist as Erasmus'.
It is a shocking portrait, shocking in far more ways than we would like to admit. It is shocking that such fine painting should be used to depict so grotesque a subject. It is shocking in the reactions it evokes, from ribald laughter, to satire, to revulsion. People still make fun of this old woman, as they doubtless did in real life; they use her face for practical jokes. Doubtless, despite her apparent rank, she was subject to similar jokes when she was alive, some of them inevitably would have been extremely cruel. The person who views this painting is drawn into the cultural clichés of every age. If she had been a peasant instead of upper middle class, or an aristocrat, she might well have been taken for a witch.
Like a lot of people, I suppose, I have for decades looked at this picture casually and superficially with half-averted eyes, while doing my share of laughing—in fact, on a recent trip to the National Gallery to see the altarpieces exhibit, I bought a postcard as a kind of joke on myself to mark my three-score year and tenth anniversary.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the punch line. This portrait began to read me. And after several weeks of pondering, I now want to call into question the modern reading of this work that links it with Erasmus, along with many other contemporary interpretations of paintings and texts of this age. Even if the painter's intention was in fact satirical, he has ended by subverting his own work.
The key, for me, is in her expression, especially that which radiates from her eyes. There is nothing of the coquette in this face. There is, rather, a calm determination touched with humour; she is ready to turn her mordant wit on herself. She a woman who has endured much, who has no illusions, who is comfortable in her own skin. This is the portrait of a woman who knows she is ugly and has suffered for it—as most of us have suffered who do not have ironed blonde hair, Barbie-doll features and a stick-like physique. She knows what it is to be written off by those who judge a book by its cover. While she may have failed to achieve the status of a married woman, her youthful dress and the unopened flower speak of someone who even at an advanced age still greets every day as a new beginning. She has come to wisdom born of a calm acceptance. Her eyes are clear and actively focused; they look to some greater, wider, more distant horizon—but her gaze is a far cry from the thousand yard stare that appears in other contemporary portraits of women, such as that of Ginevra da Benci by Massys' contemporary and colleague, Leonardo da Vinci, with whom he exchanged drawings.
One of the most intriguing questions that surrounds Massys' Portrait of an Old Woman is why it was painted. Who commissioned it?
The laughter in the old woman's eyes suggests that she sees the whole portrait painting enterprise as an enormous joke; perhaps it was she who insisted on the dated clothing, mutton dressing as lamb, simply to add to the fun; perhaps it was a way of saying what an elderly, wizened and disabled friend of mine, said to me years ago. She herself had been the ugly sister among three great beauties of the day—all of whom, it should be noted, died in bitterness and envy. My friend said that in spite of appearances she was still a young girl inside, dancing until dawn. If this picture was meant to be satirical, then the sitter was lending her irony. Was it a joke that she initiated? Was she trying to make a statement about how the world looks at ugly people and old people? Was she refusing to be dismissed, set aside, overlooked, ignored, despised, discarded? Or was this a portrait commissioned by family or friends who knew her well enough to look below the surface, who recognised something extraordinary in her?
We will never know the answers to these questions.
It is possible to see in this Portrait of an Old Woman an echo of Akibiades' remark about Socrates, '... whose outer aspect was that of a Silen, but whose features concealed a profound inner beauty'. (Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, p. 28). Ugly people have their own choices to make, but it is impossible not to wonder if, for some people, ugliness isn't a shortcut to inner beauty. If they are wise, those whom society regards as ugly don't waste a lot of time trying to disguise the fact. They are spared the vanity and anxieties of the superficially beautiful, though they have vanities and anxieties of their own. They learn early in childhood of the prejudice and discrimination against them: they have the choice to be embittered, to hate and to destroy, to become the skeleton at their own feast; or to accept the reality and aim for a different kind of beauty, a beauty that opens before them precisely because they are ugly, and which, with a kind of third eye, they find they can detect in the hearts of others, whatever their appearance.
It is this old woman in her weird beauty, not Ginevra da Benci, to whom I look as a companion as I cross the invisible chronological line between the sixties and the seventies. Her extraordinary face reminds me of one of Gary Snyder's remarks: 'But what emerges from the shock of the wild and the weird may surprise us with its beauty: "Culture is an orchard apple; Nature is a crab," a farmer friend told John Muir ... To go back into the wild is to become sour, astringent, crabbed. Unfertilized, unpruned, tough, resilient, and every spring shockingly beautiful in bloom'. (The Practice of the Wild, p. 179).
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) Old Man and Grandson
[NB I will be away from any internet connection from November 5-10; next post will be around November 12]