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Visual Arts and Aging

Portrayals, Symbolism, Assessing The Image

Older adults have been represented surprisingly often in the visual arts. Over half of Rembrandt’s works represent an elderly person. This includes fifty-five drawings, etchings, and paintings taken from the single biblical story of the elderly blind man Tobit and his wife Anna. Rembrandt’s other important images of aging persons include the famous series of self-portraits recording his own aging process, Old Woman Reading (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Portrait of an Old Woman (Hermitage, Leningrad), and many others. Important images of elderly people by other painters include Ghirlandaio’s An Old Man and His Grandson (Louvre, Paris); Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome (Albertina, Vienna); Peter Paul Rubens’s Philemon and Baucis (Art History Museum, Vienna); Velázquez’s The Old Water Seller of Seville (Wellington Museum, London); Georges de Tour’s Saint Joseph, Carpenter (Louvre, Paris); and Leonardo’s Self Portrait (Turin, Royal Library), to mention only a few works from the history of European painting. In the twentieth century, major artistic statements about aging include Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (The Art Institute of Chicago), Kathe Kollwitz’s Self Portrait (National Gallery, Berlin), and Henry Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson (Hampton University Museum of Art). But here again, there are many others that could be mentioned. In China, the classic mountain landscape painting almost always includes an elderly person traveling up a mountain stream or pathway. Indeed, one might argue that the genre is as much about old age as about landscape. Major masterpieces in this tradition include Walking With a Staff by Shen Chou (Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei), Recluse in A Mountain Abode by Kuo Hsi (Sung Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei), and Looking at the Waterfall by Ma Lin (Sung Dynasty, The Palace Museum, Beijing). Numerous representations of elderly people are found in Islamic miniatures, such as the thirteenth-century anonymous work Men Assembling Wood (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Aqa Mirak’s Scene in a Mosque, an illustration in the Falnameh or Book of Divination (Musee d’art et d’ historie, Geneva). In nineteenth-century Japan, Katsushika Hokusai thought as seriously as Rembrandt had about the visual representation of aging. His A Self Portrait at the Age of Eighty Three and Head of an Old Man (both at National Museum of Ethology, Leiden) and A Peasant Crossing a Bridge (Honolulu Academy of the Arts) The painting The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner (Photo provided by the Hampton University Museum of Art, Virginia. Reproduced with permission.) are typical expressions of his interest in representing elderly people.

Older adults have also been represented in sculpture throughout history. Notable examples are Old Woman Going to Market, an anonymous Roman sculpture of the second or third century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen (Museo dell’ Opera, Florence), Michelangelo’s figure Twilight for the tomb of Julius II (Lorenzo, Florence), several figures in Rodin’s ensemble Burghers of Calais, and his numerous studies of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Georges Clemenceau, and others.

Besides painting and sculpture, film has been a major source of visual representations of aging in art. The aging Walter Houston won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of the crusty old prospector Howard in the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Geraldine Page won the academy award for best actress in the 1985 film The Trip to Bountiful, for her portrayal of the elderly widow Carrie Watts. Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries has attracted extensive comment for its insightful portrayal of the elderly character Dr. Borg.

Finally, the art of photography has produced some unforgettable images of the aging face, and some of these have become virtual icons of twentieth-century culture. Examples are Yousuf Karsh’s photographic portraits of Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, Irving Penn’s Colette, and Dorothea Lange’s White Angel Bread Line.

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