Portraying the Young and the Old

When you compare and contrast taking care of a toddler and geriatric person, you find yourself focusing on brain growth and brain damage. It is simply wonderful, in fact enchanting, to read aloud to your child and see how your child absorbs knowledge, language, and illustrations as a dried-out sponge. This is such a rewarding and pleasant, if not addictive, task, it brings pure joy. That lovely warm body of a relaxed child to hold close to you, seeing these beautiful big eyes staring at illustrations, and these sweet small fingers pointing out what riddles him or her.

Taking care of a geriatric person is completely different. It feels like a Sisyphean task. (What is a Sisyphean Task, click here). There is forgetfulness, decline, less energy, and an increasing need for rest. Eventually, just like taking care of a baby, you end up just sitting close, holding hands and dwelling in the here and now without expectation or ambition.

Roman sculpture: Silenus with Dionysus by Lysippos. Glyptothek Museum Munich Germany

I had an uncle who was full of character. He thought that the old only had a ‘nuisance value’. He was in his late seventies when he talked about this, so we laughed off his notions. The first time he made my husband and me aware of his old age ‘nuisance value’ ethics was when he had to stop his car (in which we sat) and wait a long time for a very old person, bending like a crooked tree branch, to cross a street. All the while step… wait… step… wait. .…my uncle shared his philosophy on nonexistent values of old age. He knew that old men often become aggressive and very old women often grow depressed. To him there was no way out of this Sisyphean predicament other than dying on time, which he did.

Whether you agree or disagree with the nuisance value philosophy, we need to be grateful to both the young and the old. We need to be able to nourish one’s soul, keep the brain going, and see that sharing every ounce of love is worth the effort.

Guido Reni’s St. Joseph with infant Jesus; the beauty of young and old united. For more on this painting click here.

The difference between taking care of a toddler and an old person is that with a toddler you are gearing all education towards gaining independence in the future. Whereas with an old person, you accept the loss of independence and find comfort in sharing memories about the past. One embraces the inevitable and inescapable short timeline we all have. Whilst it is so incredibly fulfilling to witness the growth of a child and its growing cognitive capacities, it takes courage to come to terms with loss, with a changing brain, a brain that is shutting down operations. That said, is it therefore not wondrous that in an old person, childhood memories are so manifest? The first memories that were written in stone (in the brain) are those who will disappear last. I find incredible comfort in this because it shows that a healthy and happy childhood keeps its value for a lifetime. That said, it is also an urgent reminder how we need to take excellent care of every single child’s early life. (‘It is easier to raise a happy child than to fix a broken man’)

As an artist, I like to add that painters overall seem to be more inspired by old age than by young life. A baby is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, nothing written on it yet. It is lovely, beautiful and adorable, yet it has no depth. A baby is like an angel, alluding to heavenly innocence.

Raphael’s baby Jesus with Maria

Take the old, they have lived. Lived! Life has thrown 101 blessings and troubles to them. They have dealt with war, conflict, illnesses, labour and misfortune. Oldies have weathered heavy storms. How did they do that and what resilience shows in their countenances? That is the inspiring challenge to deal with whilst painting an old man or woman; trying to capture the many layered life experiences that a human being has endured.

The same counts for painting a sea or body of water. A calm sea only mirrors the heavens (like babies do), whilst a stormy sea is great fun for an artist; one hardly can’t go wrong with the wildness and chaos of high waves and lots of foam (just like the wrinkles in an old person’s face).

Christian Seybold (1695 – 1768) Portrait of an older woman.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

Make sure you have lived…because life has been given to you and staying a young is no option. Keep your brain active, keep your enthusiasm going. Accept high waves. Give a portrait painter enough wrinkles and a biographer enough soul.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Dutch artist at Etsy & Instagram & Linktree