There is some mystery surrounding the painting ‘The Ugly Duchess’, so nick-named as it was used by John Tenniel as the basis for an illustration of the Duchess from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Was it derived from an earlier Leonardo drawing (now lost) or is the reality vice versa and was Leonardo inspired by her? It is known that the two artists exchanged drawings. Another mystery is the identity of the sitter, if it is meant to be a specific person? In the past she was generally thought to have been Margaret of Tyrol, an infamous Countess with loose morals, who lived some 100 years prior to the date of this painting and who was also labelled rather rudely, ‘satchel-mouth’. Nowadays it’s usually thought to be a caricature of a type (perhaps modeled on someone with Paget’s Disease), and a warning against vice – the crime of trying to recapture the sexuality of youth. The tight rosebud she holds in her right hand and probably offers to a hoped-for suitor, is symbolic of her sexual state – she is closed up so to speak, and will never blossom. Very sad. Yet with her outmoded dress and monkey features, she is also a ludicrous figure of fun. A possible literary influence is Erasmus’s well known essay In Praise of Folly (1511), which satirizes women who “still play the coquette” and “cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors” and “do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts” !!! Watch out all you pensioners!
In the Renaissance ideals of beauty and proportion were extremely important and believed to be a reflection of the inner life. A pale skin and high forehead for example, were seen to represent virtue and purity within. Elegance of dress (for example, a fine headdress and gauze veil), equally expressed ladylike virtues. By extension, disagreeable attire and distorted features could signify ugliness of the soul. What we are seeing here is undoubtedly a demonstration of the latter.
A third mystery surrounds the existence of a second panel (in Paris), which is thought to adjoin it and form the right wing of a diptych. It features an old man (not grotesque like his companion), who appears to be reprimanding her. As you can see from the illustration above, the ledge is continuous and his raised hand forms a counterpart with her right. I will discuss this in the next post so as not to overload you!