A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

An Old Woman by Quinten Massys, c. 1513, The National Gallery

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

Do you think of art as something beautiful? Why has this ugly old woman been chosen for display at the National Gallery?

Quinten Massys enjoyed painting satirical pictures which had a moral message. This withered old woman is wearing a very unflattering low cut Italian gown, which does not suit her. Massys is mocking her and warning against the follies of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.

Medical research has shown that this unfortunate woman was actually suffering from Paget’s disease, a chronic disease which enlarges and deforms the bones. This is a very severe case as her jaw bones have been enlarged, her upper lip extended and her nose has been pushed upwards.

It was thought for a long time that Leonardo Da Vinci inspired Massys’ paintings, but recent research has now revealed that it was actually the other way round. Massys inspired Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest painters of all time!

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Da Vinci was not the only artist inspired by Messys. John Tenniel was a British artist in the 19th century who created illustrations for Lewis Carole’s  fantastically imaginative book, Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel’s drawings of the extravagant, overbearing and wicked Ugly Duchess character were inspired by ‘An Old Woman’. In 2010, Tim burton created a visionary film version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonhma Carter. Helen Bonham Carter plays the ugly duchess character, who has a ridiculously large head with exaggerated features. It is a great example of how a painting of an ugly old woman from 1513 can influence popular culture today!

 

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