5 minute read

Visual Arts and Aging


To understand how frequently elderly people are depicted in art, it is a good exercise to study the almost innumerable images of St. Jerome as wise elder that have been produced in the history of European painting, and the vast range and variety of perspectives on the aged person that have been presented through the use of that theme. Visual images of this popular fifth-century saint in his old age are standard fixtures in hotels, restaurants, hospitals, government buildings, and other public places over most of Europe. In much of Asia, representations of the elderly Chinese sage in a remote mountain retreat, referred to above, are similarly common. Another good way to discover how frequently artists create images of elderly people is this: go to any museum of art, and, excluding galleries devoted solely to twentieth-century abstract work, try to find a room or gallery that does not contain at least one representation of an elderly person. It is enlightening to discover how infrequently one is able to do so. In the same vein, try to name a film in which no elderly character appears in at least a significant supporting role. It can be done, but not often.

Visual artists have been careful and astute observers of elderly people, often seeing beyond conventional false stereotypes. A conventional negative stereotype of age in the West is that the physical appearance of old age is without beauty. But most visual artists have insisted that the characteristic look of the aging face and typical gestures of the aging body are of great beauty and aesthetic value. The testimony of artists in support of this view can be seen in the frequency and care with which they have created exquisitely beautiful images of older persons. In China, this division between the conventional view of aging and the observations of artists does not exist, because Chinese popular culture, like China’s visual artists, attributes great physical beauty in the aging face and body. Artists have also created numerous images that combat the stereotype of older adults as frail or without physical vigor or energy. Against this, elderly people are regularly depicted in the visual arts as being physically robust and vigorous. See, for example, La Tour’s Saint Joseph, Carpenter (cited above) and Rembrandt’s Old Woman Cutting Her Nails (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Another consistent motif in art showing careful observation of older adults is the representation of a special relationship between elderly people and children. This was a favorite theme of Velázquez, which he explored repeatedly. Examples are his The Old Water Seller of Seville (cited above) and Old Woman Cooking (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). Tanner’s Banjo Lesson (cited above) is a strong statement of the same theme. In images like these the artist expresses ideas and attitudes about the passing of culture from generation to generation, a fundamental process of civilization.

One way to gauge the soundness of what artists say in their representations of aging is to compare it with findings in the modern social science of gerontology. For example, a central observation of the modern psychology of aging is that many people, as they grow into their later years, tend to ‘‘disengage’’ or to withdraw from the activities and interests that motivated them in youth and middle age, and increase the time spent in inner reflection. Many representations of elderly people in the history of art record and explore this change of orientation. Representative examples include the paintings by Dürer and Rembrandt cited above, the many representations of Saint Jerome in the desert found in European painting, the motif of withdrawal to a mountain retreat or hermitage in the Chinese landscape, and representations of the elder as aesthetic wanderer in Hindu art.

Another discovery of modern psychology of aging is that people tend to reminisce more often, and apparently with greater interest, as they advance into late adulthood. Many paintings of elderly people in the history of art evoke an unmistakable mood of reminiscence, showing the artist’s awareness of this phenomenon of late life. In the Chinese landscape, for example, the elderly person is often shown high in a mountain promontory, looking back over the path ascending from the valley below—an unmistakable metaphor The painting Saint Jerome by Albrecht Durer, circa 1521 (Historical Picture Archive/Corbis) for ‘‘looking back’’ over one’s life. Early in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the old miner Howard engages in a deeply felt account of his past life, and the film The Trip to Bountiful actually centers on the theme of Carrie Watts’s irrepressible need to revisit the past. Finally, much of modern scientific study of human aging concerns the possibility of achieving special insights, or wisdom, in old age. Here again, early artists have anticipated twentieth-century thought. The story of Tobit, so often represented in Rembrandt’s works, is a story of illumination and understanding achieved in old age. Indeed, Rembrandt’s life-long persistence in representing that theme in his painting would seem to indicate an interest in the possibility of old age wisdom, for the story’s central event is the old blind man (Tobit) recovering his sight. A much repeated image of a wise elder who understands much is that of the father in the biblical story of the prodigal son. Powerful interpretations of that theme have been produced by many leading European and Islamic artists. Innumerable other paintings depict elderly people as either wise elders, or as pilgrims in search of wisdom. In the Western tradition, images of elders often show them with books, the illumination of candles, or keys, all symbols of the quest for and achievement of special insight. More often than not, Chinese paintings that depict the elderly at all show them as ‘‘sages,’’ that is, as older adults who have achieved wisdom. A repeated theme in Chinese art shows the elderly sage thoughtfully watching or listening to a waterfall. There is a reason for this. In Chinese thought the waterfall is said to contain opposites, because the waterfall is forever moving and changing, and yet also forever staying in the same place. So the elderly sages’ contemplation of it symbolizes the ultimate wisdom; namely understanding the underlying unity of all opposites.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Visual Arts and Aging - Portrayals, Symbolism, Assessing The Image