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Rembrandt and the art of growing old gracefully

While other artists were coldly curious or, worse, cruel in their depiction of old age, Rembrandt relished the effects of time

Rembrandt painted old age with a nobility and power that no other artist has ever approached. The authentication of his picture The Old Rabbi at Woburn Abbey adds yet another marvel to the world's most sensitive gallery of ageing.

Renaissance artists were by turns reverent and coldly curious about the effects of age on a face. In 15th-century Florence, death masks of elderly patricians were kept by their families. In early 16th-century Venice, the painter Giorgione, who was to die young, made a disconcerting portrait of an old woman, who bears a banner that says "Col Tempo", or "with time". Giorgione seems to be mocking vanity, pointing out that even the most beautiful face will wrinkle and yellow with time.

It is not a heartening message. Leonardo da Vinci was crueller, mocking elderly faces as monstrous wrecks in his caricature drawings. It took Rembrandt to recognise the dignity and character of aged faces and to embrace the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious and rich.

His paintings of old faces neither flatter nor scrutinise, are neither in denial about nor repelled by age, but instead relish the effects of time. Rembandt is, above all, interested in the inner self, the mystery behind someone's eyes, and the distractions of youthful glamour just get in the way of that pursuit. An elderly face framed by a white ruff collar over black clothes allows him to see deeper.

Rembrandt's deepest study of ageing was a lifelong project: he watched himself grow old. His unrivalled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his Self-Portraits at the ages of 34 and 63 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.

To be sure, Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with.


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