Quentin_Matsys_-_A_Grotesque_old_woman (1)       Image result for massys portrait of an old man

Quentin Massys: Ugly Old Woman c.1513 & ‘Handsome’ Old Man c.1514 (as pair)


Engraving after above diptych by Wenzel Hollar c.1645

‘The Plot Thickens’

The oil painting of an old man in a Private Collection, attributed to Quentin Massys (another version exists in Paris shown here, with gold background and inscription), is thought to form a pair with the ‘Ugly Duchess’. The continuous ledge and reflected resting hands tie them together. The scale is slightly different, as is the positioning, (the profile view is more typical of the early Renaissance), but this is the case with many marriage diptychs, which were common in the Renaissance. In many cases the differences could be explained by different dates of execution (for example, the wife could be commissioned as an ‘approval’ portrait, and the husband added upon or after the actual marriage). Unfortunately neither of these two panels are dated, though the Paris one is. Both the man and woman are displaying rings, which suggests marriage, but as we explored in the previous post, it is probable that this caricature of ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’ represents a ‘type’ not an actual person. This conclusion is substantiated by the fact that her image has been used as a template for later characters e.g. John Tenniel’s Duchess in Alice and Wonderland.
The plot thickens further by the existence of an engraving done in the 17th Century – presumably a copy of the diptych. Here the couple are labelled as ‘The King and Queen of Tunis’. So is the gentleman a real person or just a ‘type’ like his companion? He certainly has an air of reality about him, and is free from the grotesque looks and embarrassing dress of his companion. He looks like a kindly, intelligent and scholarly man although there is a slight humour in his protruding ear and hooked nose.
The existence of this other painting only deepens the mystery. If the ‘Ugly Duchess’ is a satire of a lusty old woman inappropriately seeking a younger suitor, who is the old man? Is he an imaginary husband reprimanding her offer of a rosebud with his negating hand gesture? If he is imaginary, why is there a lusher, seemingly solo, replica panel? If only we could travel back to 16th Century Europe!