‘She is most likely a he’: New art exhibition challenges gender of 16th-century Massys painting ‘An Old Woman’

An art historian has provided an alternative reading of one of the National Gallery’s most memorable portraits.

An Old Woman by Flemish painter Quinten Massys has hung at the Gallery for more than 80 years, and is known for its unusual depiction of an elderly woman with arresting features.

The 1530 painting shows an aristocratic woman whose looks deviate from common beauty standards.

As described by the National Gallery, her features include “lively eyes set deep in their sockets, a snub nose, wide nostrils, pimply skin, a hairy mole, bulging forehead and a prominent square chin”.

The portrait inspired Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Though Massys’ painting has long been speculated as a depiction of a woman with Paget’s disease, a condition that causes bone hypertrophy, Emma Capron, an expert in Renaissance art, has now claimed that the figure was likely to be a man dressed as a woman, in keeping with the artist's exploration of gender.

“Yes, she is most likely a he,” Capron told The Observer.

“A cross-dresser as a play on gender. We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women.”

One of the defining attributes of the painting subject includes large, wrinkly décolletage. According to Capron, this is a signature feature for Massys.

“The breasts, with their brazen and scandalous cleavage, are a Massys fantasy.”

An Old Woman or The Ugly Duchess by Quinten Massys (Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images)
An Old Woman or The Ugly Duchess by Quinten Massys (Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images)

An Old Woman is one of a pair of paintings. Its companion piece is An Old Man, which, until recently been in a private collection in New York.

Both pieces will be displayed together in a new exhibition curated by Capron called The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, which opens at the National Gallery on Thursday 16 March.

The exhibition will also claim that a drawing called A Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Francesco Melzi, who was Leonardo da Vinci’s leading assistant, inspired Massys’ An Old Woman.

An Old Woman is also occasionally known as The Ugly Duchess, after it was misattributed as a portrait of Margaret Maultasch, Duchess of Carinthia and Countess of Tyrol, who lived in the 14th century.