The Old Masters

Frequent visitors to this blog (all three of you) have no doubt noted a predilection to illustrate my rants with paintings of Bosch and Brueghel, Juvenalian satirists of the highest order; however, when it comes to unflattering depictions of the human race, those two Old Masters share many a Flemish cousin who can also render grotesqueries and human folly with Chaucerian panache.

The Ugly Duchess

Take the above masterpiece, Quentin Massy’s (1466-1530) portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Carinthia, also known as Margaret Maultasch (“Satchel-mouth”), though best known as The Ugly Duchess.  

An exquisite warning to in-breeders everywhere, she, of course, is the great-great-great grandmother of the Duchess Alice encounters in Wonderland.

The Ugly Duchess’s famous issue also include the Cowardly Lion:

AKA Bert Lahr (pictured below in drag)

In Auden’s frequently anthologized poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” he notes that 

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along [. . .]

He goes on to describe the suffering’s occurring “anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot” and cites Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus as an example.


In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

But it’s not only suffering that goes on in the untidy corners of the paintings of Flemish masters; plenty of hankypanky takes place there as well.

Take this example from the above-mentioned Massys, The Ill-Matched Lovers.


Note while the lecher’s hand is copping a not-so-surreptitious feel,


the young woman’s transferring his purse to her companion,


a literal Fool.


Anyway, it’s not all tongue-clucking burlesque; these masters certainly could capture beauty when in the mood [not to mention pre-photographic perfection (check out the instruments at the bottom)].  


Caesar van Everdingen, Pegasus and the Four Muses

Nevertheless, for whatever reason (an overabundance choleric humors, perhaps), I prefer the Old Masters’ satire to their high mindedness. 


I leave you with these details from Bosch’s The Wayfarer.


Oink, oink, say the piggies. Splash, splash goes the urine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s