'I adored my grandfather and this painting reminds me of his gentle nature and weathered features. Now I’m a grandfather myself, I know the adoration in the old man’s face'.

Portrait of an old man and a boy

Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, about 1490, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–94), 24in by 18in, The Louvre, Paris, France

Nick Davies says:

‘The way Ghirlandaio has captured this tender moment seems to me miraculous and the sumptuous red garments enhance the warmth of their exchange.

I adored my grandfather and this painting reminds me of his gentle nature and weathered features. Now I’m a grandfather myself, I know the adoration in the old man’s face, too.

The view through the window reflects life’s journey from sunlit youth to the distant hills and echoes the contrast between the boy’s golden curls and the grandfather’s grey hair .’

Nick Davies is a field naturalist and professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Cambridge. His book Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature is published by Bloomsbury. 

John McEwen says:

Ghirlandaio (pronounced Gearlan – die – o) is a nickname – a common occurrence with Italian Renaissance artists, who were often named after their birthplace and so on.

He was born Domenico di Tommaso di Currado di Doffo Bigordi. ‘Il Ghirlandaio’, or ‘Garland-maker’, was inherited from his father, a Florentine goldsmith famed for making the golden metallic garlands fashionable among the city’s women.

He first studied under his father and, according to Vasari, ‘he would sketch everyone who passed by the shop, and… immediately produced their likenesses’.He moved on to the workshops of the painters Alesso Baldovinetti and Andrea del Verrocchio.

As an artist, he excelled in painting church frescoes, popularly incorporating details of daily life and contemporary portraits. His supposed self-portrait appears in the Adoration of the Magi in the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence.

Ghirlandaio ran a large workshop with his brother-in-law and two surviving brothers and Michelangelo was one of his many apprentices. Vasari wrote that he liked to work so much, he ordered his apprentices to accept any task, however lowly, ‘even if it was only to make rims for the women’s baskets, and if they did not want to paint them, he would do them personally, since he wanted no one to leave his shop dissatisfied’.

Bernard Berenson, the 20th-century authority, wrote of this famous portrait: ‘There is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento [15th century] painting, whether in or out of Italy.’
The old man has rhinophyma (Greek for ‘nose growth’), a skin condition usually of old age.

It would previously have been considered a shameful mark of God’s disfavour, but Ghirlandaio reflects Renaissance Humanism in regarding it irrelevant to character.