A Portrait of Perfect Love

"Old Man and Young Boy", Ghirlandaio, c. 1490

"Old Man and Young Boy", Ghirlandaio, c. 1490

Spring, 2007

On a visit to Paris I wanted to see this portrait at the Louvre by Ghirlandaio, “Old Man and Young Boy”, c. 1490. I had lectured on this beautiful piece, always drawn by its tenderness. When I laid my eyes on it tears welled up. At the time my daughter was pregnant with her first child, a boy, so this piece held a special significance for me as I was about to embark on a new chapter in my life, that of “Nana-hood”. Fond memories of my grandparents flashed through my mind…

What perfect human love! Eyes locked, the gentle touch of the hand – the warm red tones – the years that separate the old man and the young boy simply vanish. The piece is tender, quiet, yet emotionally charged. Immediate, yet timeless.

Ghirlandaio was a master painter during the 15th-century Florentine Renaissance. This is one of his best-known works, and in my opinion, his most poignant. The artist captures a fleeting moment. There are no barriers between the sweet, innocent face of the child and the wise, tender face of the older gentleman.

Yes, it is the condition of the nose of the old man that dominates his face, and this is the element that initially captures our attention. But it is our heart, our soul, that looks beyond his physical appearance and sees and feels such a warmth between two individuals who are separated only by years—the old man in the winter of his life, the youthful boy in the spring of his.

The composition of this portrait is typical of what art historians find from the late 15th-century Florentine Renaissance. Elements include half-length figures, three-quarter profiles, and a window that draws our eyes into the landscape with its serpentine road, rolling hills, and majestic mountains. The landscape, both gentle and rugged, seems to echo the portrait. The color red dominates the painting, exuding the essence of pure love. The little boy is a classic example of Renaissance beauty: a naturalistic yet idealistic face, his tender lips and nose, his innocent eyes, his delicate fingers, and his golden, curly hair that shapes his face. The touch of his hand is loving, as is the kind gaze of the old man as he looks downward with his wrinkled, heavy-lid eyes. Youth and age, beauty and the ravages of time, contemplate one another. Time stands still.