Domenico Ghirlandaio Portrait of an Old Man with a Young Boy
Painted in 1488, this tender portrait of frailty, affection, and inner beauty is one of the most memorable works of the early Renaissance and still manages to inspire within the viewer feelings of hope and loss some seven centuries later. Domenico Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man with a Young Boy is without doubt the most enduring representation of the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson, as the figure in Ghirlandaio's painting stares with warmth, longing, and paternal love upon the young man at the beginning of his life. Although clearly caught in a brief moment of contemplation, Ghirlandaio's silent image reveals an intense emotional dialogue. The face of the old man is marked by rhinophyma, a skin disease that results in the swelling of the nose, that provides the painting with a profound sense of honesty, of love triumphing over the classical preoccupation with youth and beauty. It is a work of stunning humility and must be seen as one of the crowing achievements of Renaissance humanism.
Framed by a towering mountain in the distance, a symbol of the eternity of the natural world in the face of human mortality, the pair sit inside their home clothed in the red tunics typical of the Italian upper classes in the late-fifteenth century. It looks as if the child has just bounded up to the old man, as this moment of emotional resonance is caught only be the painters eye, in the same way that a snapshot photograph would, by chance, catch fleeting moments of intensity centuries later. Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man with a Young Boy is a prime example of the diverse viewpoints explored by the artistic community in Florence during the early Renaissance. It is an exploration of dignity and wisdom, united by love and familial connections to that of naivety and innocence. As the meeting point between two vastly separate generations, Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man with a Young Boy also marks the connecting point between the tectonic plates of Western painting that would result in the artistic earthquake of the Italian Renaissance.
Movingly, a red pencil drawing preserved in the National Museum in Stockholm was recently discovered, bearing a remarkable likeness to the old man in Ghirlandaio's painting. Appearing to show the death mask of the man it is a solemn reminder of the fragility of human existence and the immortality of emotional love.
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