untitled design

How Renaissance portraiture challenges ideas of female beauty and aging

The 1513 portrait “An Old Woman” by the Flemish artist Quinten Massys may well be one of the most famous paintings of the Rebirth . And it is also one of the most atypical of the period.

With wrinkled skin, withered breasts and sunken eyes, the painting of Massys – believed to be either a fictional folk character or a woman suffering from an exceptionally rare form of Paget’s disease – is visibly elderly.

But she’s not just old; she’s weird. Her forehead is high, her nose turned up and wide, her square chin excessively prominent. Even her attire is a far cry from what a Renaissance lady would be expected to wear at her age. Instead of modest and sober clothes, she’s wearing a revealing low-cut dress showing off her cleavage (and those dimpled breasts).

She shares none of the idealized qualities seen in other female figures of the time, such as Sandro Botticelli’s Venus or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Yet despite her appearance, the portrait – more often referred to as “The Ugly Duchess” – is so captivating that it made the old woman one of the most unforgettable figures of her time. Now, a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery entitled “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” is set to shed a new light on her captivating appearance.

Massys’ painting will be displayed alongside its companion piece, “An Old Man”, borrowed from a private collection, as well as other works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Jan Gossaert, featuring equally expressive older women, to explore how the female body, age, and certain facial features were satirized and demonized during the Renaissance.

“’The Ugly Duchess’ is one of the National Gallery’s most beloved and controversial pieces,” show curator Emma Capron said in an interview ahead of the show’s opening.

“Some people love it, some people hate it, some people can’t even look at it. I wanted to question this, while also examining how this and similar images of ‘transgressive’ women – women aging outside classical standards of beauty – actually served to mock social norms and upset the social order. Despite what you might think at first glance, these are powerful, ambivalent, and even cheerful figures.”

subverting the conventions

For a long time, critics interpreted Massys’s painting primarily as a misogynistic satire of female vanity and self-delusion. Likewise, her outrageous appearance next to that of the man – possibly her husband – who is decidedly more formally dressed than she is (even a little boring), has long been considered a parody of marriage (she has seen her offering him a rosebud as a symbol of love, but he has his hand raised as if to indicate contempt).

But, Capron said, there are many more layers to painting than that. “This is an older, ugly woman questioning the canons of beauty normativity,” she explained. “With her exaggerated features, she symbolizes someone who is unapologetic about herself and what she’s wearing, and who isn’t trying to hide or be invisible.

“On the contrary, she is trampling on the rules of propriety and the way women of a certain age are supposed to behave. Her provocation and irreverence feel completely of our times – and are what made her image so enduring.”

Her position in relation to her partner also signals that she is not just the butt of the joke. The Duchess is, in fact, standing on the right – on the viewer’s left – which in double portraits of the time was the highest side, and generally reserved for men. Essentially, she is taking the place of her male counterpart. “It’s like she’s turning the world upside down and bringing about change,” Capron said.

Massys, she added, was probably all too aware of the reactions her over-the-top character would elicit. While ridiculing the old woman was certainly part of his concept for the piece, the painter also used the work to poke fun at the principles of classical art, mix high and low culture – the portrait-worthy genre with the carnivalesque figure – and push the grotesque to the forefront. main.

Many of his contemporaries shared similar ambitions. Two related drawings of the same memorable face attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and his main assistant Francesco Melzi, which are also on display in the exhibition, point to the possibility that the Flemish painter based his painting on compositions by the Italian master, who was equally fascinated with the subversive potential that themes like older women can have.

Likewise, the other pieces in the show – from the frowning Maiolica (a type of enameled Italian faience) “Bust of an Old Woman” (circa 1490-1510), on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum, to the menacing “Witch Riding Backward on a Goat” by Albrecht Dürer (1498-1500)—also reveals how, for many Renaissance artists, “older women offered a space to experiment and play that the representation of conventional beauty and normative bodies simply did not allow,” Capron said.

older women in art

Old women served not only satirical art. From ancient Roman sculptures to contemporary works of art, aged female figures have indeed appeared in many different guises by artists across the world.

“Across all visual traditions and genres, older women have always been particularly fascinating subjects,” art historian Frima Fox Hofrichter — who co-edited an entire anthology on the topic titled “Women, Aging and Art” — said in a telephone interview. .

“With their wrinkles and saggy breasts, furrowed brows and shapely bodies, they have taken on a range of widely diverse and often subtle meanings that go far beyond caricature.”

Old women have been used as reminders of death and the unstoppable march of time, from Hans Baldung Grien’s “The Ages of Woman and Death” of 1541 to the unsettling “Time and Death” by Hans Baldung Grien. the Old Women” (“Tempo e as Velhas”), by Francisco Goya, painted in 1810.

They were depicted with empathy and compassion to reflect wisdom, gentleness, and dignity, as seen in Rembrandt’s paintings of old women from the early to mid-1600s, such as “An Old Woman Praying” (1629), in which the artist used light and shadow to create a sense of emotional depth and intensity that emphasizes the spiritual devotion of the woman (probably her mother) and your respect for her faith; or “An Old Woman Reading” (1655), where the elderly figure’s vivid face shows a tender, gentle expression that exudes warmth and care.

Often – in line with ancient attitudes about gender – they came to embody sin and malevolence, as shown in the richness of modern-era European witch iconography, from Jacques de Gheyn’s “Witches’ Sabbath”, dating to around the 16th century , early 17th century, until “Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters” by Henry Fuseli, circa 1783.

“In all their various forms, they have been the opposite of invisible,” said Fox Hofrichter. “Whether through stereotyped representations or positive associations, older women in art made us look, think and showed us something new. There’s a lot of power in that.”

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as more female artists entered the field, the representation of older women changed again. Their bodies, in particular, came to the fore as being unshakable, even confronting new paths, and – crucially – seen through the lens of a woman.

American painter Joan Semmel’s large-scale nude self-portraits are perhaps the best example of this, documenting her own body as it ages over the decades. Semmel, now 90, started the project in the 1980s as a way to portray herself in a way that felt real to her, without idealizing or hiding the natural effects of aging, from sagging breasts to sagging skin.

The resulting works couldn’t be further from the notion of traditional female portraiture that puts youth and perfection above all else. Instead, they show the audience a woman accepting her own aged flesh.

African-American artist Diane Edison has also not shied away from exploring her personal history through uncompromising self-portraits that highlight her aging face and body, balancing vulnerability and defiance at the same time.

The reworking of old age was also done through fantasy worlds. In the series “My Grandmothers” (2000), Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi asked a group of young women (and some men) to imagine themselves 50 years from now, to challenge their assumptions about old age and their perceived notions of what life is like. word “elderly” could mean.

By focusing on the wrinkles, lines and other physical features that come with age, these artists highlighted the ways in which aging can shape and define a person, challenging the notion that youth is the only time worth celebrating and old age something to be feared or avoided.

“When older women appear on screen, film or sculpture, they expand our understanding of what it means to age,” said Fox Hofrichter. “In a way, that makes them harder to capture and, as a result, more challenging for viewers to look at. Which is the essence of great art”.

Capron agrees. “Women are often presented as young and beautiful or old and invisible. But many works of art have proven time and time again that there are many more gradients in between,” she said. And “The Ugly Duchess” is proof that even a caricature of an elderly lady can contain crowds.

“The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” runs from March 16 to June 11 at the National Gallery in London.

Source: CNN Brasil

You may also like

Most popular