The various ages of man is a common topic of visual conversation. Age is a common concept that artists have tried to understand and depict. The fleeting nature of age, mixed with the inability to fully understand and capture ages past and age’s future makes the topic all the more compelling. This curation begins with Dosso Dossi’s Three Ages of Man and continues though the centuries capturing the commonly used motif of age. The theme of man’s childhood, adolescence, and mortality is a motif often found in artwork both in subject and form. Some of the paintings in this curation directly approach the matter of mortality and death in their subject matter whether by symbolizing death with sculls, directly depicting death through personification, or in the representation of a live body that might as well be dead. A topic of debate or inquiry with many of these paintings is whether they should be read as narrative, or an instance in time. For example, Dossi’s work – perhaps the most debated – could represent the life and coming of age of one man, or a snapshot in time. Either way, all of these paintings capture a sense of age and the inevitability of human mortality.
Dosso Dossi, Three Ages of Man, 1486–1541/42, Oil on canvas, 26.83.
This work sits as the centerpiece of the curation. Dossi’s work has been described as having attributes of impressionist painters. His work can be read as either narrative, or one moment in time. The landscape painting was done around the same time as Titian, Giorgione, and Baldung’s works that are used as comparisons in this curation. However the comparison extends beyond the collegues of Dossi’s lifetime to artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well.
Titian, Three Ages of Man, 1512-1514, oil on canvas, held at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Titian’s work was made around the same time as Dosso Dossi’s Three Ages of Man, in fact, the two artists worked under the commission of the same Duke. Needless to say, the two artists were influenced by each other in style, composition, and theme. The structure of each work is obviously similar in the subject matter and its placement. The landscape is also portrayed similarly with a similar horizon line, a larger emphasis on the lovers, and the diagonal created by foliage and figure.
Giorgione, Three Ages of Man, 1500-1501, Oil on canvas, held in Galleria Palatina within the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
Like Dossi and Titian, Giorgione also worked under commission of the same Duke, so all three artists – whether or not they directly worked together – were largely influenced by one another. Giorgione’s work again shows three ages of man, but is much different than Dossi’s and Titian’s in its structure and style. The painting contains only three men, and unlike Dossi’s and Titian’s it is always interpreted as one moment in time instead of narrative. Another differentiating quality of Giorgione’s work is that it is not a landscape. Despite these differences, the theme of age divided into three major categories is still prevalent.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug, 1843, watercolor over graphite, 59.120.
Turner’s painting is similar to Dossi’s in form. Dossi’s style set him apart in his day as a “poetic” painter who used loose brush strokes, which gave his work an impressionist feel. The Lake of Zug, although it was made several years before the impressionist movement, has a similar quality that is found in Dossi’s painting. The loose brush strokes combined with the small scattered figures complements Dossi’s work. The color pallete for each work is also complementary containing similar yellows, greens, and blues. Another similarity between this painting and Dossi’s is the sharp diagonal that cuts from the bottom right of the painting up to the top left.
Hans Baldung, Three Ages of Woman and Death, 1510, oil on linden wood. Held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The motif of three ages of man does not stop with just man, but also extends to women. Baldung’s work was done at around the same time as Dossi, Titian, and Giorgione’s “three ages” paintings. This work is similar in subject matter – except for gender – and now instead of emphasizing the age of love for the middle age, it is now an emphasis on the vanity of a young woman. Another differentiating feature is the looming presence of death. As only seen by the eldest woman. This is similar to Titian’s Three Ages of Man as the oldest man in this painting contemplates death while holding two skulls (two skulls that probably represent the two versions of his younger self). This painting, unlike the others, is more obviously viewed as narrative.
Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages Woman, 1905, oil paint, held at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome.
The motif of age is seen throughout the ages now in the twentieth century. Klimt’s work is structurally very similar to Baldung’s in it lateral nature. Although there is no physical presence or representation of death, the oldest woman appears to be in mourning over herself, and her body already looks dead. This painting unlike all the others except Giorgione’s is not a landscape. The subject matter is also different in the middle-aged woman because instead of a lover’s love or a young woman’s vanity, she is a depiction of motherhood.