Thinking About Ghirlandaio’s Old Man and His Grandson

Let’s jump right in.  I’ve always loved this painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio (pronounced Gear-lan-DYE-oh). It hits me emotionally:  the tender gaze between grandfather and grandson.  So much so that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it before.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and His Grandson, 1490, Tempera on Wood, Musee du Louvre, Paris

I’d like to come up with a better word, but what I keep thinking of is “sweet.”  It really is a sweet painting.  An ideal image of grandfather-grandson love.  Clearly, the two of them trust each other completely.  You can just tell.

The most striking thing about this painting, though, visually, has got to be the grandfather’s lumpy nose.  It’s the result of a disease called rhinophyma and certainly adds realism to the painting.  When I first saw this painting, before it was repaired and cleaned in 1996, it looked like this:

Ghirlandaio, An Old Man with His Grandson, before 1996 cleaning

Although the scratches are clearly on the painting and not on the man, somehow they made it all the more charming.  Imperfection upon imperfection, adding originality and uniqueness.

The second thing that strikes me, as I try to look at it less emotionally, is that the depictions of grandfather and grandson are completely different.  The grandfather appears to be an actual person, with his lumpy nose, a wart (or something similar) on his forehead, wrinkles, and large ears. (I learned recently that our ears never stop growing, so the older we get, the bigger our ears are in proportion to our heads. Which explains a lot.) The boy, on the other hand, looks to me like a stereotypical child in a Renaissance painting. He’s beautiful, with perfect curls, a little pink to his cheek, his cap perched exactly on his head.  He could be in many Renaissance paintings.  Continue reading


Wait a second! They’re portraits! (Madame Tussaud’s Wax Sculptures)

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London was one of my favorite places when I was a kid.  Being dragged to museum after museum was usually bearable, but I would breathe a sigh of relief when Madame Tussaud’s was on the agenda.  That I was looking at art never occurred to me, though.  The lifelike sculptures, the Chamber of Horrors, including a particularly chilling wax rendition of The Death of Marat (painting of French revolutionary murdered in his bath, below), did not leave room in my child’s mind for thinking about art.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, Oil on canvas, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

It turns out that the process for making wax sculptures today is relatively straightforward, if time-consuming.  At Madame Tussaud’s, the museum staff take measurements of the person for whom they’re creating a likeness, make a clay model and a steel frame, then a mold is made and hot wax is poured in to it, hair is inserted strand by strand, eyes and teeth are added, and paint is applied.  Like I said.  Straightforward.  Though in the past it must have been more difficult, wax always been particularly conducive to creating figures.

The real Madame Tussaud got her start making wax portraits of celebrities of the time, such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.  She went on to make wax death masks of beheaded aristocrats during the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Marat himself. The wax “masks” were carried through the streets of Paris by revolutionaries as both a “let that be a warning to you” and as trophies.

It really should have occurred to me before now that the wax sculptures are portraits, although in my defense, we don’t usually think of portraits as being created for entertainment purposes. But this fact still allows them to be portraits, doesn’t it?  I mean, take a look.  This is a portrait:

Judi Dench and Daniel Craig (from 007 set), Madame Tussaud’s, London

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