With a significantly longer lifespan, growing old gracefully is more important than simply staying alive. However, until the Renaissance, the elderly was treated poorly. Wealthy men enjoyed power into their old age, but unfortunately it was not the case for poor men or old women. While young women were praised for their beauty, old women were thought to be ugly and even described as witches often.
The portrait of an old woman by Belgian painter Quentin Massys of the 16th century is shocking. With a raised forehead, an unusually short nose and a droopy face with many wrinkles, it looks as if she came out of a sci-fi movie. Her lips are closed, and it seems there is no tooth left underneath them. She even looks like a gorilla. Although out of fashion, she is gracefully dressed like an upper class lady. Her head is adorned with a heart-shaped hat, and the ends of a white veil that covers her shoulders are tied with a gold brooch. Her tight dress accentuates her cleavage while she is holding a red rose that has not fully bloomed in her hand. Basically, she is trying to seduce a man.
Does not this look familiar? The Duchess in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was inspired by this portrait. Although little is known about the old woman, it is said that she was a duchess with vanity who lived in Burgundy, France in the 15th century.
Why did the painter draw someone from a century ago? It is probably because she represents ugliness and vanity. Then why was she obsessed with her appearance and sex appeal? It is because she wanted to deny she was old. She was afraid of being marginalized and excluded. She did not want to lose her femininity nor to be perceived as a witch. Medical researchers say that she might have had a scary disease that morphs her bones. It is pitiful that she still cared so much about how she looked even when she was old and ill.