Portrait of Sixteenth-Century Disability? Quentin Matsys’s A Grotesque Old Woman

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Sara Newman


art history, Netherlandish portraiture, the grotesque


Scholars rarely examine art works from a disability studies perspective; their analyses often misinterpret those works, reinforcing contemporary assumptions about disability and its past representations. Accordingly, this paper examines a portrait by sixteenth-century Antwerp artist Quentin Matsys (1466-1529) from a historically situated disability studies perspective. A Grotesque Old Woman (c.1513) has been understood in terms of abnormality. Existing scholarship has suggested that she represents physical, gender, and sexual deviance in the spirit of Erasmian allegories, or an individual with Paget’s disease. Although these interpretations may inform contemporary scholarship, they shed little light on sixteenth-century disability and its artistic representations. This paper demonstrates how the portrait reflects a cultural transition from an earlier collective, religious model of disability to a more “municipal” one which considers disability vis-à-vis individuals engaged in daily commercial or personal activities. This analysis provides insight into how disability was understood in Matsys’s time, contributes to our understanding of the Dutch allegorical and portraiture traditions, and demonstrates what a historically situated disability model offers future research on artistic representations of disability. 


Figure 1:

Image Credits

Figure 1: Quentin Matsys, Grotesque Old Woman, photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, London.

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