Grotesque Old Woman: Why did Leonardo and Matsys depict you?

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) sketched the head of the woman to the left. Flemish painter Quentin Matsys (1466 – 1530) painted the oil portrait below. People have generally assumed that Matsys was copying Leonardo. Obviously, there is a remarkable similarity between the two heads produced in roughly the same time. Both artists had an interest in the ugly as much as the beautiful, and these images have popped up multiple times in my reading on ugliness and on portraiture. I think these two works say a lot about the nature of beauty and function of portraits.

I’ve read that Leonardo despaired of finding true beauty after struggling with the Vitruvian man, and turned more to grotesques and caricatures. I don’t find this very convincing. Ugliness, just like evil to good, is so much more interesting than beauty. Also, throughout his life, Leonardo displayed an acute attention to all aspects of life.

So there are many questions about who this woman is, who drew her first (assuming she is the same woman), and why she was drawn. This oil is one of Matsys’s best known pieces today, and, once considered simply a copy of Leonardo, is now thought to depict a real person with Paget’s disease, though it is sometimes said to be a portrait of Margaret Countess of Tyrol, also known as “the Ugly” or “Satchel-mouth.” Was it a commissioned portrait of an individual, or a grotesque head done for fun? Without answering any of these questions, I think one can delve into the ideas of beauty and portraiture that informs these works.

Beauty in the Renaissance era functioned as an outward sign of one’s inner self. Beauty was associated with goodness, and ugliness with vice. Paradoxically then, females–as the original temptresses– were either beautiful and pure, or ugly and lecherous. What a man is to do in those circumstances, I don’t know. More and more in this time, we see men paying homage to ugliness as the safeguard to chastity, or ridiculing old women for their fading charms, or chastising women for using make up to alter their appearance and trick people. In this portrait, the woman is clearly ugly. She does not seem lewd, nor does she seem made up. In Matsys portrait, her old-fashioned bonnet would have made her seem additionally ridiculous. However, Matsys portrait–perhaps just because of the oils–makes her look like a real individual, especially in the eyes, whereas Leonardo’s sketch seems like another of his grotesque heads even as the bulbousness of the figure is less pronounced.

Are the images of the grotesque women meant to depict a real person (or people)? I would argue that both fall into the tradition of the caricature, placing them squarely at odds with beauty. Notice, though, how despite her ugliness she is not revolting. Caricatures, by creating a harmony out of the disproportions of ugliness, neutralize the bad associations that ugly females had. Albeit at the same time as it mocks and dehumanizes its subject, caricature elevates ugliness to a kind of beauty. It is a really interesting phenomenon, documented in Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness, which I highly recommend.

There are very few women who have spanned the centuries by being Quasimodos. Women are traditionally celebrated for their beauty or virtue. These two, or one, women interest me. If anyone know more about them, please let me know.

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