Today’s post comes from Rhyston Mays, class of 2016 and Multimedia Student Assistant.
Valentin de Boulogne’s The Four Ages of Man (1629) hangs on the Art Center’s walls among other works from the seventeenth century. The first time I came across Valentin’s painting, I was not particularly intrigued. His style was familiar, like that of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I had trouble viewing this work as much more than a stylistic imitation, and asked myself why it had a place on the walls of the Art Center. I decided to further my understanding of the work as a viewer. In doing so, I discovered that The Four Ages of Man might be a piece with a literary history. I found that this painting teems with symbolism I did not catch at first glance.
In the thirteenth century, Philippe de Novara wrote Les Quatre Ages de L’homme, a treatise on morality and knightly behavior during the four stages of a man’s life. The Four Ages of Man is likely a tribute to this work, depicting man in his childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. Valentin’s work is then highly allegorical, with each of the four men handling an object that is representative of his role and stage in life. Valentin, though a native of France, was active as an artist in Italy where he indeed received a great deal of inspiration from Caravaggio. In The Four Ages of Man, Valentin draws heavily on Caravaggio’s style of producing highly realistic, theatrically illuminated figures in a scene. Light falls upon the faces and shoulders of each of the figures, carving their figures out of the dark, shadowed background. Valentin gives identity to each of the figures through his portrayal of body language and use of symbolism.
The figures sit around a small table. Because of the compression of four ages into one synchronous scene, there is no indication as to whether these are depictions of the same man. This lack of context leads the viewer to assess each character independently. In the lower center, one sees Valentin’s first stage of man. The child holds a bird trap and his eyes are fixed on something that lies beyond the picture. His body arches forward as one hand draws open the trap’s roof. Valentin paints the child in a state of desperation; his body longs for something, and the cage might symbolize his hope to achieve it. To the left, there is the young adult. There is a hint of liveliness in his tensed brow that is uncharacteristic for the other figures in the scene. Wearing bright red and under hard lighting, his presence is entirely passionate. He gazes at the viewer while playing his lute, which, as it has for centuries, might represent this figure’s youthfulness and amorous desires.
Reading symbolism in the last two figures posed a challenge for me. On the far right, one sees the stage of life that is manhood. Novara describes this time in a man’s life as soverain estat et au meilleur de toute lor vie, the peak of one’s usefulness to society. As Valentin shows us, this man seems to have made a successful military living, wearing a victor’s laurel wreath and holding a plan of fortification. His armor and victory wreath evoke Novara’s notion of valiant service. But despite his apparent role in society, Valentin shows the man sleeping. Next, there is the elderly man. Light draws viewers to the man’s hands and face. Like the youth, he confronts the viewer with his stare. One tends to associate old age with wisdom and experience. Valentin skillfully produces this feeling with the softly lit, calm eyes of the character. Yet the man also holds a glass, presumably for alcohol, and sits behind a pile of coins.
What might Valentin have been trying to tell viewers by painting the soldier sleeping or giving the old man objects of indulgence? I don’t necessarily have the answer—but questions like this helped change my initial interpretation of Valentin and The Four Ages of Man. I know now that with proper investigation, I can improve my experience as a viewer and appreciate the deeper qualities of a work in proper context.