(b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)
An Old Man and His Grandsonc. 1490
Tempera on wood, 62 x 46 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Ghirlandaio incorporated portraits of his contemporaries in many biblical scenes. It is probably for precisely that reason that he was so popular among the rich Florentines, who were particularly keen on self portrayal. This makes it all the more astonishing that so few secular portraits by Ghirlandaio have survived.
There are two paintings dating from about 1490, in the Paris Musée du Louvre and in Madrid, that are masterpieces of his art and yet fundamentally different: Giovanna Tornabuoni is idealized to the extent of becoming an "icon" of beauty for young Florentine girls, while the old man with the boy is painted with a pitiless degree of realism. Ghirlandaio does not shrink even from depicting his nose in all its disfigurement.
In his double portrait in the Musée du Louvre, the artist succeeds not only in portraying the two figures with great tenderness, but also in conveying the deep affection between them. The boy is gently snuggling up to the old man. Their eyes meet on a diagonal: this balances the composition, and also excludes the observer from the intimate scene. The boy is looking upwards along the old man's outline, which means that he is actually looking directly at the enormous nose projecting towards him. The contrast makes the little boy's snub nose, and the way his mouth is opened in astonishment, appear all the more childlike. The old man is sitting in the corner of a room in front of an open window The delicacy of the beautiful view of the landscape is, so to speak, a commentary on the profound companionability of the two generations. A soft light is falling an the faces through the window, and the old man is lit from the right and the boy from above. As the lit halves of their faces are turned towards each other, and the same bright red is used for the garments and cap, producing a richness that contrasts with the gray wall behind, the two figures seem to merge to form one. The picture is entirely composed with their unity in mind. Flemish influences are unmistakable in both the choice of the corner of the room and the landscape, bringing to mind both Dirck Bouts' Portrait of a Man in London dating from 1462 and several portraits by Petrus Christus.
The identity of the sitters is no longer known, it cannot be stated with certainty whether they are indeed, as is supposed, grandfather and grandson. The man's nose, disfigured by a skin disease called rhinophyma, has in recent years led to the writing of several medical essays. Scratches in the paint layer disfigured it even further. This damage was removed by restoration work carried out in 1996.