Collection Online

Two old men disputing

oil on wood panel
72.4 × 59.7 cm
inscribed in grey paint l.l.: RE (...illeg.)
Accession Number
International Painting
Credit Line
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
Gallery location
Rembrandt Cabinet
Level 2, NGV International

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.