Grotesque. Strange. Hideous. These are just some of the terms that have been applied to An Old Woman, a famous work of art by Quentin Matsys. The painting, which features an unattractive older lady in fine dress, is known all over the world, but here’s the thing: we’ve all likely been interpreting it wrong. That’s according to art experts, who have begun to argue that all isn’t what it seems in this painting.
The Ugly Duchess
Matsys’ work is probably better known by another name: The Ugly Duchess. It was created in 1513 or thereabouts, with the Flemish painter making use of oils to complete it.
He depicted his subject, the old lady, with features we might generously describe as “exaggerated.” To be blunt, she isn’t exactly a looker.
The nose on the subject’s face is short and flat, with big, flared nostrils. Her lips are thin.
Her ears are large. Her skin is slack and wrinkly. A wart pokes out of her right cheek, while the hair on her head appears to be thinning beneath that headdress she’s wearing.
The subject’s unsightly features stand in contrast to her expensive-looking clothes, which appear to have been designed for an individual far younger than her. Obviously the style of these clothes seems outdated to those of us around today, but weirdly they were already old-fashioned when Matsys was working on this painting.
This outfit would have been typical of affluent ladies of a period from roughly 1400 to 1500.
The red flower
We see the woman’s hand is grasping a red flower. There’s special significance to this detail, as red flowers once served to signify a person’s status as engaged to be wed.
But oddly, this woman seems far older than people typically would’ve been when they got engaged during Matsys’ day.
Alice in Wonderland
The painting’s alternative name of The Ugly Duchess became popular after Sir John Tenniel used it as the basis for one of his own works. For anyone who doesn’t know, Tenniel provided the illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s famous book Alice in Wonderland.
In sketching out the duchess in that tale, Tenniel turned to Matsys’ painting for ideas.
A work of satire
Given its association with Alice in Wonderland, Matsys’ painting is closely linked to the idea of fairy tales inside many people’s heads. But beyond that, experts have tended to understand the work as an attempt at satirizing materialism.
That interpretation lies in the stark contrast between the subject’s physical appearance and her clothes.
Attempting to project beauty
The woman seems set on projecting an outer appearance of beauty, based on how she dresses. She wears a fine outfit and jewels, plus she holds a vibrant flower.
In theory, these are all markers of youthful beauty. Yet her physical features are decidedly unattractive: her attempt to project beauty through material things hasn’t exactly worked out.
Let’s focus on the subject’s physical features for a moment, as there have been some interesting ideas about what’s going on here. Some experts think this lady suffered from Paget’s disease, a condition where bones become swollen and misshapen.
The disorder wasn’t formally identified until the 1870s, but it’s thought to have afflicted people long before then.
The painting has actually been used to argue that Paget’s disease was around as far back as the 16th century. Viewed this way, the artwork potentially shows us how Paget’s disease physically manifests in people’s appearance.
But one scholar has argued something slightly different. Sarah Newman thinks the artwork sheds light on how people viewed disability more broadly during Matsys’ time.
Living a normal life
Newman thinks Matsys’ painting shows us how disability was beginning to be understood as something more “normal” than it had been in the past. It had once been thought of as an extreme experience, but now people were beginning to realize disabled people could live normal lives.
The painting may reflect that idea, if we think of the subject as disabled yet also living a regular life.
An advanced form
In 2008 a pair of prominent medical scholars waded into the debate about whether or not the woman in the painting had Paget’s disease. University College London’s Michael Baum and Christopher Cook argued she “had an advanced form of Paget’s, which enlarged her jaw bones, extended her upper lip and pushed up her nose.
It also affected her hands, chin, forehead and collarbones.”
A new theory
As Baum and Cook’s intervention illustrates, experts of many different fields have given Matsys’ work a great deal of thought. In the 500 years since it was created, the painting has inspired lots of debate and argument.
But now there’s a new idea going around — one that’s caught a lot of people off-guard.
Emma Capron is one of the world’s most prominent experts of Renaissance art, and she has also curated a 2023 show in London centered around The Ugly Duchess. She’s of the opinion the subject of the painting isn’t a duchess — or even a woman.
According to Capron, this figure is a male wearing women's clothing.
She’s a he
In March 2023 Capron told British newspaper The Guardian, “Yes, she is most likely a he. A cross-dresser as a play on gender.
We know that Matsys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women.” Now that you look at it, it’s difficult to deny that Capron might be onto something.
Links to da Vinci
Capron’s exhibition in London introduces audiences to more ideas about Matsys’ painting. Another work, A Grotesque Old Woman, is also being displayed there, which is thought to have been created by Francesco Melzi, who was once an assistant of Leonardo da Vinci.
This picture supposedly inspired Matsys when he was working on his own painting, but Melzi’s sketch is also thought to have been a recreation of a drawing da Vinci made. In other words, The Ugly Duchess was potentially inspired by da Vinci!
This idea is supported by Koen Bulckens, who works at Antwerp’s Museum of Fine Arts, where Matsys himself was once based. Bulckens told The Guardian, “Matsys was very much influenced by Leonardo...
And, yes, I agree that the face of An Old Woman does look like that of a man.”
Blown out of the water
So, if the subject of Matsys’ was, in fact, a man, what does that mean for the Paget’s disease theory that was so popular for so long? Well, it blows it out of the water.
Despite all the medical experts like Baum and Cook arguing for that idea, it just may not hold up.
Capron just really thinks there’s no reason to think the medical experts are correct — plus she’s uncomfortable with their theories in a general sense. She said, “It’s not Paget’s, nor any of the other suggestions like dwarfism or elephantiasis.
I’m really reluctant, too, to have doctors going around galleries and giving diagnoses.”
While Capron is confident the subject of the Matsys painting is a man, she doesn’t seem to believe he was modeled on anyone in particular. Maybe the face is a culmination of several different people? As Capron reflected to The Guardian, “These grotesque images belong to a world which is upside down, as it were.”.
Beyond the physical features of the subject, there are other signs of the gender switch at play in this painting. The red flower in their hand, for instance, is interesting in this new interpretation supported by people like Capron.
You see, traditionally a man who would have handed a woman such a flower in order to court her.
A double act
This is an important detail when we consider that The Ugly Duchess isn’t a singular work. In actual fact, the painting is one-half of a double act, as it were.
The second painting is Portrait of an Old Man, and when you see them side by side it’s clear they’re interacting with each other.
Side by side
When the two paintings are hung side by side, it looks as though the ugly woman is almost trying to seduce the man. That would explain both her fine clothing and the flower.
She seems to be offering it to the object of her desire, which, as we’ve already mentioned, was an act that would traditionally have been done by the man. It’s just another illustration of how Matsys was playing around with notions of gender.
Declining the offer
For his part, the man in the other painting seems to be declining her advances. He’s holding his hand up in a stern manner, almost as if he’s telling the woman to keep her flower to herself.
In a sense, it seems like we, as viewers of this scene, are meant to find the woman’s romantic failure to be humorous.
Hung a certain way
The thing is, this scene only makes sense if you hang The Ugly Duchess to the left of Portrait of an Old Man. That way, they are looking at each other and we can feasibly say she is offering him the flower.
The problem with that, though, is that we can’t be sure Matsys intended this.
That’s because nobody knows where the two paintings’ original frames are. Without them, we just don’t know how the works were initially displayed.
But the paintings do look like they should be hung this way. Plus, in light of what we’re learning about Matsys’ apparent delight in playing around with gender, there’s another reason to think The Ugly Duchess should be on the left.
Breaking with tradition
In a majority of the paintings involving a man and a woman created during the Renaissance period, the man would usually be positioned on the left. That was a signifier of his power, but that’s not the case here.
It’s the woman who’s staring to her right, at the man.
Capron thinks this might be more proof that the figure at the heart of The Ugly Duchess is, in fact, a man. As the art expert put it to The Guardian, “Maybe another clue that An Old Woman is a man in woman’s clothing?”
Maybe, in the end, we’ll never know for sure, but it’s food for thought.
A wider tradition
As Capron’s exhibition in London makes clear, Matsys’ painting was part of a wider tradition of painting older women. The Old Duchess will be displayed alongside other such paintings, including those by figures like Albrecht Dürer.
Taken together, these works will encourage viewers to really think about how women were depicted during Renaissance Europe.
Artists having fun
Capron thinks there’s a lot to consider within these paintings, but she’s also open to the idea that, sometimes, the people who created them might just have been doing it for lighter reasons. She said, “The images, sometimes grotesque, sometimes simply fanciful and satirical, are partly metaphors for the social disorder of the time.
And they are also artists just having fun.”
Experts disproving experts
Capron is part of a growing era of contemporary experts discovering new things about classic paintings, including correcting the wrong assumptions of others. One such correction involved a Renaissance era-classic, Portrait of a Young Woman, which was believed to have come from the studio of master painter Rembrandt, although it wasn’t thought to be painted by Rembrandt himself.
But a recent thorough examination revealed something completely astonishing, almost enough to turn art history on its head.
Time for a cleanup
In contrast to The Ugly Duchess, there’s no doubt that Portrait of a Young Woman is intentionally attractive. It’s quite old, too, dating from 1632.
But perhaps because the work wasn’t deemed significant enough. It had languished in the collection of the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania for nearly 60 years. Though in 2018, the painting finally got its moment in the sun when it was sent to New York University for a clean-up.
Local art enthusiasts
And there’s a reason why the Allentown Art Museum had a hold of the painting in the first place. The institution first came into being during the Great Depression, with local people – led by the artist and critic Walter Emerson Baum – all working to create a haven for culture in their little part of the Keystone State.
To begin with, this modest space exhibited works by mostly Pennsylvanian artists. But in the 1960s, there was a dramatic upswing in the museum’s fortunes.
The Kress Foundation
That was when the Kress Foundation – founded by American businessman and philanthropist Samuel Kress – made a stunning donation to the museum’s collections. The organization donated no fewer than 53 paintings from the Renaissance era – a massive upgrade.
And this donation motivated the good folk of Allentown to move the institution to a much grander home in the city, where it still stands today.
Kind of a big deal
As you may have already guessed, one of the paintings that the Kress Foundation passed on to the Allentown Art Museum was Portrait of a Young Woman. This was a big deal, as at the time the work was attributed to Rembrandt.
Unfortunately, though, in 1970 art experts in the Netherlands re-examined the painting and came to a devastating conclusion: it had in fact been created by a mere assistant of Rembrandt.
Not a real Rembrandt?
Presumably, the Allentown Art Museum’s staff and trustees would have been deeply disappointed when those Dutch art historians declared that Rembrandt had not painted Portrait of a Young Woman.
Not every place has an original work by a legendary master, after all, and it would have been quite the coup for the small-town attraction if it had somehow managed to clinch one.
Taking a deeper look
So, the painting remained on display in Allentown as a little-considered work by a Rembrandt understudy until 2018, when it was sent to New York University. There, it was subjected to a battery of tests, including electron microscopy, infrared scanning and X-ray procedures – high-tech indeed.
But during these procedures, the conservators found that all was not as it seemed. There was something about this particular work that seemed strangely out of the ordinary.
Student of the master
And Portrait of a Young Woman bore all the hallmarks of someone who had learned at the knee of the great Dutch master himself. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – for that is his full name – was born in Leiden in the Netherlands in 1606.
As befits a man who made history for his astonishingly beautiful art, Leiden is an attractive city five miles or so from the Dutch coastline.
Rembrandt entered the world into a fairly prosperous family, too, although he had a lot of siblings – eight of them, as far as we know. His father supported the large clan by working as a miller, while his mother was the daughter of a baker.
And Rembrandt would prove himself to be exceptional at a young age, as he was accepted by the University of Leiden at just 14.
Master of the arts
But the young Rembrandt was apparently more interested in his art than studies. After just months at the university, he took on an apprenticeship with the artist Jacob van Swanenburgh, who had studied in Italy and was known as a history painter.
This spell as an understudy to van Swanenburgh lasted for around three years.
The wise mentor
In 1624 Rembrandt then moved from Leiden to the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. There, he joined the studio of Pieter Lastman for six months.
Lastman was an artist whose paintings displayed a strong sense of narrative – a feature that would eventually figure large in many of his apprentice’s own works. If you’ve ever marveled over Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses or Christ Presented to the People, then, it’s Lastman you have to thank.
Finally, after learning his craft, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he opened a studio with his friend and fellow artist Jan Lievens. And in 1629 the fledgling artist had his talents recognized.
Dutch diplomat and scholar Constantijn Huygens became a fan, and through him the artist now had a connection with the Dutch royal court in The Hague. A lucrative source of commissions from the likes of the powerful statesman Prince Frederik Hendrik would follow.
Becoming a legend
In 1631, though, Rembrandt moved back to Amsterdam and pursued a successful career as a portraitist. It’s worth noting that Portrait of a Young Woman was painted in 1632.
At around this time, the artist also began to take on apprentices – helping others as his own teachers had once helped him. And Rembrandt cemented his reputation as an artist of great skill and quality before his death in 1669 at the age of 63.
Keeping it real
Yes, many connoisseurs recognized Rembrandt’s genius during his lifetime, although he did have his critics. There were those who accused the painter of portraying too much ugliness in his pieces – a side effect, perhaps, of his commitment to stark realism.
But today, Rembrandt’s work is accepted as some of the greatest art that the world has ever seen. It’s no surprise, then, that his paintings command extraordinary prices at auction.
Record breaking sales
In 2009 one of Rembrandt’s paintings from 1658 – Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo – sold for over $33 million at Christie’s in London. At the time, this was the fourth-highest amount ever paid for a Renaissance work.
It also broke the previous record for a Rembrandt – the $29 million sale of Portrait of a lady aged 62 in 2000.
And Rembrandt’s work has rocketed in price over the years – meaning only a few can ever afford it. In fact, in 2016 the governments of France and the Netherlands had to join together to buy a pair of works by the Renaissance master in a private sale conducted by Christie’s.
It was just as well that they did, too, as the value of the pieces was quite astonishing.
Breaking the bank
The two works were portraits of a woman called Oopjen Coppit and her husband Maerten Soolmans. Rembrandt painted the two pictures in 1634 – just a year after the couple had wed.
Each canvas measured around 83 by 53 inches and went for a staggering $95 million each.
A magnet for thieves
Unsurprisingly, though, these enormous amounts of money make Rembrandt’s work a big target for thieves. And in 1972 three masked and armed desperadoes pulled off one of the heists of the century, nabbing themselves a painting by the grand master in the process.
The trio clambered through a skylight on the roof of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the dark of night before overpowering and binding the guards there. They then made off with jewelry and paintings that included the Rembrandt work Landscape with Cottages – a piece that has never been recovered.
Investigator Alain Lacoursière had a theory about the theft, though, and he recounted this to Radio-Canada in 2017. Lacoursière explained, “There were rumors at the time that members of the Mafia here were trying to construct a ship and that the canvases would be rolled up and put in the hold during construction.
They are probably decorating the home or palace of a Russian, Italian or French Mafia member who may have exchanged them for drugs [or] weapons.”
Vanished without a trace
And not one but two Rembrandts disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990. Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was the only seascape that the great artist ever turned his hand to, and it was taken along with A Lady and Gentleman in Black.
Both painted in 1633, these works were among 13 that were stolen in what the museum claimed to be the world’s highest-value unsold art theft.
Heist of the century
On the night of the robbery, two men in police uniform arrived at the museum and were allowed to enter. They then handcuffed two guards.
And after an uninterrupted 81 minutes, the thieves left the museum with their haul, which was worth around half a billion dollars. Apparently, a $10 million reward put up by the museum for information still stands, so be sure to contact the institution directly if you know anything about the crime.
Safe and sound
Fortunately, the Allentown Art Museum has escaped the attention of art thieves, even although it owned what was believed to be an original Rembrandt. The generous gift came on behalf of the Kress Foundation, named after noted local philanthropist Samuel H.
Self made man
The patron had made his fortune by founding the extensive chain of S.H. Kress stores, which the Kress Foundation website claims sold “affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise.” At a certain point, there were around 200 Kress stores across the U.S.
But the man had wider interests than just retail. For one, he spent much of his life assembling an outstanding collection of Renaissance art.
A valuable donation
The Kress Foundation then distributed some of this incredible stockpile to public museums and galleries around the U.S. One of those paintings was the supposed Rembrandt one, which landed in Allentown in 1961.
And when the Kress Foundation donated the piece, it was genuinely believed to have been painted by the venerable Dutch master.
Not the genuine article
But in 1970 the painting was reassessed by experts from the Rembrandt Research Project. The organization looks over paintings that are said to be by the great man to establish whether or not they are genuine.
And sadly for the Allentown Art Museum and the good folk of the city, the Dutch specialists were clear: Portrait of a Young Woman was not by Rembrandt.
Master and apprentice
Yes, while the team judged that this work had indeed been painted in Rembrandt’s studio, it had been created by an assistant and not the master himself. What gave the game away?
Well, apparently, it was the quality of the light in the painting as well as its coarse texture.
The experts also questioned the way in which the woman’s clothing was rendered in the portrait, as this seemed to lack clarity. The signature on the work raised concerns, too, as it appeared to be at variance with other examples found on authentic Rembrandts.
And all this evidence was supported by previous X-rays that had raised queries about the painting’s brushwork.
A major disappointment
We can imagine that this new attribution must have been a severe disappointment to the folks in Allentown. If the Dutch team concluded that the painting had indeed been a work from Rembrandt’s own hand, then it would have been extremely valuable and a highly prestigious piece of the museum’s collection.
As it goes, though, Portrait of a Young Woman was duly exhibited as having been created by an understudy of Rembrandt’s.
Glass half full
Yes, the magnificent piece had been crafted by a student of Rembrandt’s rather than the artist himself. That didn’t make it a fake, although it was not quite a triumph.
And Portrait of a Young Woman was certainly worthy of conservation – hence its trip to New York. But what did the experts in the Big Apple make of the painting?
Getting a second opinion
Well, to begin with, the portrait was shipped off to the New York University Institute of Fine Arts in Manhattan. This organization works with the Kress Foundation to conserve the art donated to galleries around the country – including the Allentown Art Museum.
According to the institute’s website, it provides “new information about the authorship, function, authenticity and original context to which these paintings belonged.” And that was how the specialists there approached Portrait of a Young Woman.
What lies under the surface
Various types of technology were used to scrutinize the Allentown painting once it fell into the hands of the New York University conservators. Portrait of a Young Woman was examined using a technique called infrared reflectography.
It was also X-rayed and scanned with electron microscopy. And this meticulous analysis began to reveal some unexpected secrets about a work that had once been attributed to Rembrandt.
In particular, this high-tech scrutiny uncovered something intriguing about the quality of the brushwork in the painting. Apparently, this was remarkably similar to the brush strokes in other pieces that had without a doubt been painted by Rembrandt.
And one of the New York conservators, Shan Kuang, revealed more when she spoke to the New York Post in February 2020.
An important clue
Kuang told the newspaper that close examination of Portrait of a Young Woman “showed brushwork, and a liveliness to that brushwork, that is quite consistent with other works by Rembrandt.”
But there was still another important stage of work to be done on the painting: removing the coats of varnish that had been applied over the years.
Layers of varnish
Elaine Mehalakes, the Allentown Art Museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, explained to the New York Post, “Our painting had numerous layers of varnish, and that really obscured what you could see of the original brushwork as well as the original color.” So, what would be revealed once the conservators had peeled away this lacquer?.
The current fashion
Speaking to CNN about the varnish added to Portrait of a Young Woman, Kuang pointed out, "It was the fashion in the 1920s to not see any texture. We call it a ‘mirrored surface’ – people wanted to see their reflection, which is really counter to what a Rembrandt should look like.”.
The truth is out
Kuang continued, “The restorer was so frustrated building up the layers of varnish to make the texture disappear that he actually poured it on. It was the consistency of molasses, and you could actually see the drip marks.” The conservator claimed, however, that as this varnish was removed, “it became very apparent very quickly that the painting was of a very high quality.”
And art historians then came to a unanimous conclusion: Portrait of a Young Woman was by Rembrandt after all.
The real McCoy
As Kuang put it, "A number of scholars and curators have now looked at [the painting], supported the attribution and said that if this was in their museums, they’d label it as a Rembrandt. And I think that gave Allentown [Art Museum] the confidence to go ahead – and rightfully so.”
Yes, after decades of misattribution, the museum could now declare with pride that it owned a bona fide Rembrandt.
Most welcome news
Unsurprisingly, Mehalakes was jubilant about the conclusions of the experts. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2020, “We’re very thrilled and excited.
The painting has this incredible glow to it now that it just didn’t have before. You can really connect with the portrait in the way I think the artist meant you to.”
Rembrandt was not just an outstandingly talented artist but also a prolific one, so attribution controversies are no rarity when it comes to his works. Writing in the Financial Times in 2014, art historian Bendor Grosvenor pointed out, “In the first half of the 20th century, Rembrandt was believed to have painted some 600 [to] 650 works.
But from the 1970s onwards, that number shrank rapidly to around 250.”
Happily ever after
So, after about 50 years of twists and turns, a team of restorers was able to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Portrait of a Young Woman was indeed the work of the great Dutch master. And who knows? Maybe other priceless Rembrandts are gathering dust in museums around the globe – all because of their layers of varnish.
Renaissance art does tend to have its secrets. We are still learning incredible new truths about even the most famous works.