From Rabelais to the Revolution: The French Afterlife of “The Ugly Duchess”

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Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, Room L140
@ 4:30 pm - 6:00 pm

Portrait image of Emma Capron standing in front of a painting in a museum gallery.
Image courtesy of Emma Capron.

2023 Germaine Brée Lecture:

Emma Capron

Acting Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Painting at the National Gallery, London


Quinten Massys’s An Old Woman, better known as “The Ugly Duchess”, is one of most arresting faces painted during the Renaissance. This pioneering work of satirical painting was made in Antwerp in the 1510s, but it is in Victorian England that the figure became a cultural icon, after she inspired John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

A painted image of an elderly woman with lively eyes set deep in their sockets, a snub nose, wide nostrils, pimply skin, a hairy mole, bulging forehead and a prominent square chin rests one hand on a marble parapet. She is elegantly and aristocratically dressed.
Quinten Massys. An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’). 1513, 64.2 × 45.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

Between Antwerp and London however, a lesser known but fundamental chapter of the painting’s history took place in France. This lecture will trace the figure’s French journeys, when she successively found her way into a copy of Rabelais’s works, entered an aristocratic collection where she gained her fanciful identification to the infamous medieval ruler Margaret “Maultasch” (“The Ugly Duchess”), was endlessly copied in paintings and prints, and finally reappeared in a satirical pamphlet during the French Revolution as the symbol of popish decadence.

Although seemingly anecdotal, the numerous and often surprising reinventions that Massys’s figure underwent in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France have much to reveal about the dynamic dialogue between humanistic thought and rebellious imagery during the Renaissance, as well as early modern attitudes toward female assertiveness. The extraordinary French afterlife of “The Ugly Duchess” provides a potent example of the normative as well as liberating power of grotesque images.


Dr. Emma Capron is Acting Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Painting at the National Gallery, London, where she recently curated ‘The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance’ (2023), and ‘Discover: Manet and Eva Gonzalès’ (2022-23). She has previously held fellowships at Musée du Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Frick Collection, where she curated ‘The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos’ (2018-19). A graduate of Sciences Po Paris, she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute in London.