Seeing Wrinkles, Spotting Greys

Exploring the significance of looking closely, PhD researcher Caitlin Doley asks: how can studying visual representations of old age help the medical humanities? 

We often hears the lamentation that old age renders people invisible. And it is an assessment that rings troublingly true when it comes to the visual arts. It is not that there are no elderly bodies featured across visual culture; indeed, the opposite is often the case, with such famous artworks as James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871) and Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) putting old bodies centre stage. The problem is that these artistic representations of elderly bodies are rarely given the attention they deserve; they are overlooked by art historians, curators, and journalists alike.

Harry Clifford Pilsbury, An Old Woman Reading, 1915, McLean Museum and Art Gallery – Inverclyde Council

I was writing my master’s thesis at the Courtauld Institute of Art when I first became aware of the lack of literature on artworks that focus on ageing.[i] This intrigued me, and I decided to propose a PhD project to investigate old age in works of art produced in late nineteenth-century Britain. The project was initially conceived as focusing entirely on exploring whether certain works of art that featured old bodies matched Victorian expectations – both social and medical – for advanced age, or whether these works could be interpreted as proposing alternative ways of thinking about this stage of life.

The first few months of conducting research for my project introduced me to the medical humanities, a field, I confess, that was completely new to me. It quickly became apparent that the literature published by scholars working within this field gave little consideration to representations of ageing bodies in the visual arts [ii]. Seeing as the process of ageing is a highly visual phenomenon, I was surprised to find that nobody studying age in the medical humanities was thoroughly engaging with visual sources. This surprise saw me expand my initial field of enquiry, as I began to consider a broader question: how does studying visual representations of “the old” help the medical humanities?

Whilst scholars in this field certainly are expanding the parameters of age studies, more needs to be done to integrate study of the visual arts into ongoing efforts to explore the ageing experience. Visual works of art are an essential source to consult as they provide an opportunity to consider how humans have interpreted, challenged and expanded the ways in which age, ageing and old age have been understood throughout history. Arguably, later life is the most varied, least homogeneous part of the life course. Though some visual works of art do undoubtedly assist in the construction and maintenance of popular stereotypes of “the old”, others demonstrate the diverse nature of what “getting old” looks like, and even what it might feel like. Artists may not have created artworks with the intention of teaching viewers and scholars the ageing process, but their paintings, sculptures, and photographs undoubtedly provide a valuable resource in the context of medical humanities. When treating the ageing and elderly, it is vital to understand how the person seeking medical and/or psychological treatment experiences ageing. Artworks, I believe, can move us away from stereotype, and encourage awareness of what a diverse experience the ageing process can be.

Take as an example the two oil paintings that illustrate this post. Made over 250 years apart, both depict an old woman. At first glance, these paintings might appear to be uncomplicated. Yet looking closely at these canvases in tandem encourages observations that in turn generate a series of questions; questions which help to expand our thinking about age as a sociocultural construct as much as it is a natural occurrence. Each figure is alone, engaged in a domestic activity, with only the upper half of her body visible. Both figures look downwards, with neither of them aware that they are being viewed. Both figures are fully dressed, with very little skin on display. Both figures’ outfits are comprised of a variety of colours. One of the figure’s hair is visible to us, the other’s is covered by a piece of fabric akin to a veil. One of the figures wears spectacles and also holds a magnifying glass, the other wields a pair of nail clippers. One of the canvases is significantly darker and also significantly larger than the other.

Style of Rembrandt, An Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, c. 1655-60, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above observations could be compared to the physical examination of a new patient entirely unknown to a medical practitioner. This close looking allows various additional, more nuanced questions to arise for the researcher. Why is each figure alone? Are they widows and if so, does this mean that the artist aimed to provoke our sympathy, and that these figures are unhappy in life? Even if this proved to be the case, simultaneously we can see that each figure is able to function independently, with one reading – albeit with the assistance of two items used for vision correction – and the other trimming her nails. Neither has a visible assistant performing their task for them. As viewers based in the twenty-first century, we must recognise this latter observation as a positive: both figures evidently have control over their upper bodies and can thus maintain a degree of agency in life.

In addition, closely looking at visual works of art is a useful activity for helping medical practitioners hone the skill sets essential for their job, including their observation skills and their ability to maintain objectivity whilst never losing sight of empathy. Many nuances of the ageing process are overlooked by the medical profession in modern times, with some older patients’ health issues misdiagnosed as “just part of the ageing process” when, for a younger patient, the same symptoms are attributed to more general illness.[iii] This tendency towards oversight has already resulted in some medical schools trialling enrolling aspiring medical students on art history modules.[iv]

This activity of looking closely and critically at visual representations of elderly subject matter demonstrates how we cannot just look at an “old body” and presume complete infirmity or “age-related issues”. We must look closer and recognise all other aspects of that body. The visual arts provide a crucial tool through which to view the complexities and paradoxes of ageing, for the medical humanities, art historians and medical practitioners. In short, we must look beyond the wrinkles and the grey.


Caitlin Doley is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at the University of York. Her doctoral thesis examines the intersection of old age and art between c. 1870 and 1910 in Britain, with a particular focus on considering how ways of managing aged appearances also presented opportunities for creativity. @CaitlinDoley


[i] Aside from problematic twentieth-century literature on the idea of “late style”, the first piece of scholarly writing I found on age/ing and visual culture was a wonderfully thought-provoking article on this absence of relevant literature. See Sabine Kampmann, ‘Visual Aging Studies: Exploring Images of Aging in Art History and Other Disciplines’, Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2 (2015): 279-91.

[ii] This is not to say that medical humanities scholars do not engage with visual sources. For some examples of how medical humanities scholars have engaged with the visual arts, see ‘Section 2: Visual Arts’, in Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities, ed. by Victoria Bates, Alan Bleakley, and Sam Goodman (New York: Routledge, 2014), 41-103.

[iii] A. Ben-Harush, S. Shiovitz-Ezra, I. Doron, S. Alon, A. Leibovitz, H. Golander, et al., ‘Ageism among physicians, nurses, and social workers: Findings from a qualitative study’, European Journal of Ageing, 14 (2016): 39-48.; S. Buttigieg, S. Ilinca, M. S. Jose, and A. T. Larsson, ‘Researching Ageism in Health-care and Long Term Care’, in Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism: Vol. 19. International Perspectives on Aging, ed. by L. Ayalon and C. Tesch-Römer (Berlin: Springer, 2018), 491-513; E. J. Gaynor, S. E. Geoghegan, and D. O’Neill, ‘Ageism in stroke rehabilitation studies’, Age and Ageing, 43, no. 3 (2014): 429-31.

[iv] B. He, S. Prasad, R. T. Higashi, et al., ‘The Art of Observation: A Qualitative Analysis of Medical Students’ experiences’, BMC Med Education, 19, no. 234 (2019).; C. M. Klugman, J. Peel, and D. Beckmann-Mendez, ‘Art Rounds: Teaching Interprofessional Students Visual Thinking Strategies at One School’, Academic Medicine, 86 (2011): 1266–71; A. K. Kumagai, ‘Perspective: Acts of Interpretation: A Philosophical Approach to Using Creative Arts in Medical Education’, Academic Medicine, 87 (2012): 1138–44; P. A. Lazarus and F. M. Rosslyn, ‘The Arts in Medicine: Setting Up and Evaluating a New Special Study Module at Leicester Warwick Medical School’, Medical Education, 37 (2003): 553–9; J. Shapiro, L. Rucker, and J. Beck, ‘Training the Clinical Eye and Mind: Using the Arts to Develop Medical Students’ Observational and Pattern Recognition Skills’, Medical Education, 40: (2006): 263–8; K. Weller, ‘Visualising the Body in Art and Medicine: A Visual Art Course for Medical Students at King’s College Hospital in 1999’, Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery, 8 (2002); 211–6.

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