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Portrait d'un vieillard et d'un jeune garçon

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

Paintings
Italian painting

Author(s):
Martine Depagniat, Dominique Thiébaut

This moving portrait of a boy with an aged Florentine patrician disfigured by rhinophyma - acne rosacea - may in fact have been painted after the death of the latter: the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has an excellent Ghirlandaio drawing showing the same man full face, with his eyes closed and apparently on his deathbed.
The painting may also have allegorical significance.

A dual portrait

An old man seated by a window holds in his arms a child whose delicate features are framed by blond ringlets. The man's gentle, benevolent smile and the child's trusting gaze convey their mutual affection. At the same time there is a striking difference in the way each is portrayed: shown in three-quarter view, the old man, recognizable as a Florentine patrician by the cappuccio on his shoulder, is shown with uncompromising realism, the light coming from the right enabling the painter to detail the gray hair, the wart on the forehead, the wrinkles around the eyes, and, especially, the nose deformed by rhinophyma. This image of age and the unsightliness induced by disease is in total contrast with the unsullied profile of the child, with his narrow nose and dainty mouth.

An intimate atmosphere

Beginning with Fra Filippo Lippi 50 years earlier, the device of the window opening onto a meticulously detailed landscape - originally borrowed from Flemish painting - had often been employed by Florentine portraitists.
The luminous red of the old man's fur-trimmed robe and the child's doublet and hat contrasts sharply with the gray of the pietra serena sandstone walls.
The tight framing of the scene and the touching intensity of the looks being exchanged add to the intimate atmosphere suffusing this dual image of grandfather and grandson.
But is this really a portrait from life?

A commemorative painting?

A handsome drawing in Stockholm's Nationalmuseum shows the same old man with the same disfigured nose, lying eyes closed on what seems to be his deathbed. The artist may have used this meticulous study to meet a request from the deceased's descendents for a commemorative work on wood. Thus the child is not necessarily the old man's grandson, but perhaps an invented being introduced to render the scene more narrative and poignant, in addition to highlighting the ancestor's goodness and greatness of soul.
Ghirlandaio's exceptional skill and his ability to capture personality in his frescoes and paintings on wood earned him a host of commissions from the Florentine aristocracy of the late 15th century.

Bibliography

- THIEBAUT Dominique, "Un chef-d'oeuvre restauré : le portrait d'un vieillard et d'un jeune garcon de Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449-1494", in  Revue du Louvre, 1996.

Technical description

  • Domenico GHIRLANDAIO (Florence, 1449 - Florence, 1494)

    Portrait d'un vieillard et d'un jeune garçon

    Vers 1490

  • H. : 0,62 m. ; L. : 0,46 m.

  • Acquis en 1880 , 1880

    R.F. 266

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 5

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