Old Man with a Young Boy by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Interpretation of Early Renaissance Portrait

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Old Man with a Young Boy
By Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Old Man with a Young Boy (1490)


Explanation of Other Renaissance Portraits


Name: "Old Man with a Young Boy"
Date: 1490
Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94)
Medium: Tempera on panel
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Renaissance in Florence
Location: Louvre, Paris

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Florentine painters like
Domenico Ghirlandaio, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Old Man and a Young Boy by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One of the most moving Renaissance portraits, Old Man with a Young Boy is an example of Ghirlandaio's late work - a wonderful portrayal of the loving relationship between an aging nobleman and his grandson. The leading exponent of fresco painting during the Florentine Renaissance, Ghirlandaio was influenced by both Flemish painting and the work of certain Early Renaissance artists including Andrea del Castagno (1420-57), Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69), and Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). This particular picture is important for two reasons. First, it captures the love between an old man and his grandson - a bond which overshadows physical disfigurement. Second, it exemplifies the progress made by Early Renaissance painting, notably in the areas of realism and humanism. Indeed, some art experts - notably Bernard Berenson - rank this work among the greatest portrait paintings of the Italian Renaissance.

The picture depicts an old man in a fur-lined red robe complete with cappuccio, embracing a young boy - traditionally assumed to be his grandson - who is attired in a red doublet and cap. The costumes clearly suggest wealth and position, and the boy may have been included to emphasize the kindness of the elderly aristocratic subject, and to soften the effect of the grey hair, the wrinkles, the wart on the forehead, and, especially, the nose disfigured by rhinophymanasal growths, all of which Ghirlandaio captures with total realism. He was already much-beloved by Florentines for the lifelike portraits of contemporary faces among the figures of his frescoes, but this "warts and all" portrait is a landmark work. The portrait may have been executed after the death of the sitter: there is a Renaissance drawing of the same man on his deathbed, also by Ghirlandaio, in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Indeed, there is almost something valedictory about the painting, with the young boy looking up at the aged and ruined face of his grandfather.

In the background of the portrait, a window gives us a view of a rural landscape of mixed terrain and winding tracks, a standard arrangement often used by Ghirlandaio - see, for instance, his contemporary panel painting entitled The Adoration of the Magi (1488, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence). Interestingly, the contrasting terrain mirrors the contrasting complexions of the old man versus young boy. This use of a scenic view as a backdrop to a portrait was a common motif in Italian Renaissance art: it was borrowed originally from Flemish painters, as was the three-quarter profile of the old man.




Above all, Ghirlandaio's work illustrates the humanistic strides made by Early Renaissance art and culture during the quattrocento. Previously, a physical deformity (visited upon the victim by God) was seen as a sign of an inner defect or sinful behaviour. However, Renaissance humanist thinking placed Man (albeit a creature of God) at the centre of things, and endowed him with a natural purity of sorts. Thus the sitter's rhinophyma is quite irrelevant to his character, and is completely overridden by his loving expression and obvious devotion to the child on his lap, which is seen as clear evidence of his virtuousness and love. In fact, the innocence of the child, his sweet young face and the position of his hand on his grandfather's chest, all testify to the loving intimacy between them.

Lastly, although the Florentine concept of disegno contrasts sharply with the colorito of the Venetians, the fabulous luminous red of the old man's robe and the child's doublet shows that mixing colour pigments was a talent common to both traditions.

Explanation of Other Renaissance Portraits

For an interpretation of other portrait paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, see the following articles:

Christ Crowned with Thorns (Ecce Homo) (1470) Metropolitan Museum, NY.
By Antonello da Messina.

Lady with an Ermine (1490) Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.
By Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1502) National Gallery, London
By Giovanni Bellini.

Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-5) Louvre, Paris.
By Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15) Louvre, Paris.
By Raphael.

Pope Leo X with Cardinals (1518) Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.
By Raphael.

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546) Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Titian.


• For the meaning of other portrait paintings from the Florentine Renaissance, see: Homepage.

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