Diagnosis in Painting

Diseases of Old Age in Two Paintings by Rembrandt

George M. Weisz and William R. Albury


Two paintings of older men by Rembrandt (1609–1669) are examined to demonstrate that historical attitudes toward diseases of old age and the ageing person’s response to illness can be investigated in paintings. The works selected are of different genres and date from different stages of Rembrandt’s own life, one from his youth and one from his old age. Both paintings show figures who have joint pathologies typically associated with the ageing process, the first involving the subject’s foot and the second involving the subject’s hand. Despite the sometimes painful nature of these conditions, the subjects are shown accommodating their illnesses while maintaining both their intellectual and social engagement and their emotional composure. Although the seventeenth century offered older people very little effective medical treatment in comparison with what is presently available, these paintings nevertheless present a view of illness as a subsidiary rather than a dominant feature of old age.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2015;6(4):e0042