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.  Like with this angel:

Andrea del Verocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, The Baptism of Christ, detail, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 1470s.

Or he could fit right into this one, although the whole feel of the painting is different:

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, 1487, Museo degli Uffizi, Florence

They’re admittedly not exactly the same thing. But I think you get the idea.

In the end, none of this really matters, though.  The man and the boy look at each other lovingly.  The boy doesn’t care about the man’s lumpy nose, nor does the man care that the boy looks like a stereotypical Renaissance child.  Ghirlandaio had a large workshop (where he trained Michelangelo, among others) and was an excellent businessman in addition to being a successful and respected painter.  I’d say that all of that comes through in this painting.  It’s solid and responsible, appealing and kind. And although I’ve always very much wanted this old man to be Ghirlandaio himself, we know it’s not. Of course we don’t really know if Ghirlandaio was as kind as this old man appears to be, but we might know what he looked like. Check out the two details below. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds, detail, probable self-portrait is man next to donkey with dark hair, 1483-85, Panel painting, Santa Trinita, Florence

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, detail, probable self-portrait, 1485-88, panel painting, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Ghirlandaio’s Old Man and His Grandson

  1. Hi Karen – thank you for this post about this curious piece from Ghirlandaio, which was also featured at the Recent Met exhibition on Renaissance portraits. It is interesting to note the realism depicted in the old man’s face – contrasted against the more idealised child, which some have argued look like the equally idealised but older child in the Ghirlandaio portrait of Francesco Sassetti and his son. The extant drawing for the old man has convinced many that the portrait is a posthumous one, although the identity of the sitters has never been conclusively decided, with the recent Met catalogue adding another name to the mix!

    That all being said, what strikes me about the boy is his irregular scale compared to the old man. He seems just a little too small for the face which indicates he is around four or five years old. This can either confirm that the old man was indeed depicted posthumously, or that parts of the painting may have been executed by an assistant – as some have argued. We will likely never know of course.

    Many kind regards
    H

    • Hi Hasan! If only I lived closer to New York — looks like the Renaissance portrait show was amazing. I love that you call the painting “curious” – it IS curious! I’m not really convinced that the drawing of the (likely) same old man means that this painting was done posthumously, but as you say, we’ll likely never know. The differences between the man and boy are so striking, including the scale — thanks for pointing that out. And thanks for reading and commenting!
      Take care —
      -Karen

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