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Rembrandt Captured the Goodness of Old Age

According to the British art critic Jonathan Jones, many Renaissance artists were "coldly curious" or even cruel in their depictions of old age. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci scorned elderly faces as "monstrous wrecks." Fortunately, there was one notable exception to this habit of mocking the elderly—Rembrandt. Jones writes, "Rembrandt painted old age with a nobility and power that no artist has ever approached." He recognized "the dignity and character of aged faces" and embraced "the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious, and rich." Rembrandt was much more interested in what Jones calls "the mystery behind someone's eyes."

But Rembrandt's deepest study of aging was based on his own life. Rembrandt painted more self portraits than any other artist of the 17th century, and all together they tell the story of his journey into old age. For instance, in 1640, at the height of his career, Rembrandt painted his "Self Portrait at the Age of 34." Decked out in an elaborate and fashionable costume, Rembrandt looks self-assured and even snobbish. But nearly thirty years later in 1669, the year of his death, Rembrandt painted "Self Portrait at the Age of 63." In this painting he wears a simple peasant coat and beret. His face looks wise, humble, and peaceful. Jones concludes, "At 34 [Rembrandt] looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human. To be sure, Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with."

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