National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1936
This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of Digitisation Champion Ms Carol Grigor through Metal Manufactures Limited
Rembrandt painted Two old men disputing in his home town of Leiden when he was only in his early twenties. Yet this picture reveals the individuality and brilliance that distinguished him as Leiden’s finest artist and compelled his permanent move in 1631 to the much larger and more cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam.
Rembrandt’s use of dramatic lighting to create atmosphere is remarkable in this work and it anticipates his virtuoso use of chiaroscuro that characterises his later paintings. A brilliant shaft of sunlight falls diagonally from the upper left, illuminating one figure but leaving much of the picture in darkness. Rembrandt uses the contrasting light to draw the viewer’s attention to the aged man in white, whose beard and wrinkled skin have been meticulously painted. Even in the shadows, the still-life details, such as the candle, the quill and the ink-stand are carefully and delicately rendered, in a manner that reflects the Leidse fijnschilders (Leiden ‘fine-painters’).
There has been some speculation as to the subject of this painting. It has been suggested that two men are philosophers – possibly Hippocrates and Democritus – or that they are the apostles Peter and Paul. When representing specific biblical figures, however, Rembrandt usually included symbols commonly associated with them, such as the keys to the kingdom of heaven (St Peter) or a sword (St Paul). That there are no such attributes present lessens the likelihood that the painting is a portrayal of these two saints. Nor are there any direct references to particular philosophers. On 3 June 1641, when the picture was cited in the will of Jacques de Gheyn III (a close associate of Rembrandt who may have acquired the painting directly from him), the panel is referred to simply as ‘two little old men, seated and disputing’.
The inclusion of objects evocative of learning, such as books, a quill and a globe, further suggests that the painting is an emblematic composition whose theme is the wisdom of the elderly.
Considered in this light, the painting can be seen to reflect a specific cultural phenomenon in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, when the aged, particularly men, were highly revered for their authority and experience. It is interesting that the man with the whiter hair and longer beard (beards whitened with age were regarded at the time as symbolic of great knowledge) is pressing his point energetically and seems to be lecturing his perhaps slightly younger companion. Rembrandt was one of a number of Dutch artists who painted positive images of anonymous elderly men, and this picture can almost certainly be seen as belonging to this genre.
Reproduction, 2003, based on a Dutch frame from 1627
The frame on Two old men disputing, 1628, when acquired in 1934, was described by the dealer D.A. Hoogendijk as “the antique 17th century frame I found in Paris”. The frame is in the manner of seventeenth century French frames but has been cut down from a larger format creating an imbalance between the ornamented corners and the less decorative cushion panels.
The reframing of the Rembrandt panel was proposed in preparation for an exhibition in 2005.
The frame selected was a box frame dating from 1618. Box frames were a common form of Dutch frame up to around 1630.
The frame is a decade before the date of the panel and a reproduction of the same frame had been used previously to frame Cornelius Saftleven ‘Interior with soldiers’ (4563-3) .
It was chosen to relate to the construction of the picture, the room, with the box-like form drawing the eye of the viewer into the space.
The frame is constructed from European oak and finished with black paint, distressed.
The frame was made and fitted to the painting in 2005.