The Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) produced many memorable depictions of older persons. Indeed, more than half his extant paintings show figures who are ageing,1 not to mention his drawings and etchings. Like other Dutch and Flemish artists of his time—such as Peter-Paul Rubens (1577–1640), who was also interested in ageing people as subjects for his paintings—Rembrandt tended to focus more on the realistic portrayal of old age than on idealized or allegorical treatments.2 This is not to say, however, that one can approach his figures as if they were exact replicas of the persons shown, since like all artists Rembrandt developed his own individual style of representation which could adjust, exaggerate, or downplay features of a person’s appearance for aesthetic purposes.3
It has been suggested that paintings of older adults, by Rembrandt and other artists, can give modern gerontologists insight into the ways in which ageing was viewed in earlier times, with regard to such issues as the subjects’ engagement with or detachment from the world, their portrayal as embodiments of wisdom or folly, and the extent of their interaction with people of other generations.4 In addition to these considerations it is also of interest to know how the diseases of old age were viewed in previous centuries. The present study examines two works by Rembrandt to demonstrate that earlier attitudes toward the diseases characteristic of ageing can be investigated in paintings.
Rembrandt, undoubtedly the greatest artist of the Netherlands, was one of the outstanding painters of the seventeenth century. He began his career in Leiden, the city of his birth, and later moved to Amsterdam where he achieved his greatest successes. Despite his fame, his family life was plagued by tragedies, with the loss of most of his closest loved ones: his wife, a subsequent de facto partner, two daughters, and two sons. Ultimately he was declared bankrupt, abandoned by the Amsterdam painters’ guild and by society generally, and forced to sell his home, furniture, and art works to pay his debts. Today, however, his masterpieces are housed in an Amsterdam museum which carries his name and in many other galleries around the world.5
Two paintings by Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, will be briefly considered. One of them is a narrative scene showing two old men, dating from the artist’s youth. The other is a portrait of an ageing man completed in Rembrandt’s final years—a time when we might expect him to have been disillusioned with the world, in view of his own unhappy experiences. This selection allows us to examine two different genres of painting from two different periods in Rembrandt’s life.
In what follows we shall give a description of each painting and identify the pathologies depicted.
Then we shall discuss the significance of these two paintings for the conception of illness and old age which they present. It would be foolhardy to generalize about Rembrandt’s attitude toward ageing and illness from the inspection of two paintings only, and that is not the purpose of the present exercise. Rather, our intention is to show that in these two specific pictures one can see a representation of ageing in which physical illnesses typically associated with the later stages of life are accommodated by such simple expedients as resting an affected limb. The joint pathologies shown in these two works would have caused the subjects pain at times, but the individuals depicted have lost neither their intellectual and social engagement with the world nor their emotional composure.