Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

The Old Woman in the Mirror: A Case of An Art Critic’s Erroneous View of Age

In from The Dangerous Old Woman manucript on April 25, 2010 at 12:51 AM

The art critic says of this work by Bernardo Strozzi:

Here, he portrays an old woman with jaded skin and white hair who is denying herself the dignity of old age. She is having her hair sumptuously styled and ornamented with ribbons and feathers, is wearing a youthful, low-cut dress and admiring herself with pleasure in the mirror.

“The theme of this painting has a long tradition: the old woman who has not learned to give her life any other meaning but that of ornament and vanity, and who is unable to see the truth or recognize her true self in the mirror. Strozzi’s formulation, however, is both individual and new. It makes the most of the surface values, deliberately contrasting the wrinkled skin of the old woman with the fresh complexion of her servant and juxtaposing the firm and rounded forms of youth with the withered slackness of old age. He reveals in the mirror that the old woman’s red cheeks are painted with rouge, and he places a blossoming, scented rose in her wrinkled hand. He also shows us the uncriticizing complacency on her face, leaving it up to the spectator to deduce a sense of embarrassment, emptiness, transparent illusion and moral warning.”

But, Dr. Estés, disagrees and offers the following:

Stand back Critic! I’d just offer this, with a gentler eye and a care for storyline…  This painting, called “Old Woman in the Mirror,” was painted 400 years ago.

I personally do not see what the “art critic” sees, although that could be true for some. Rather, I look at the evidence of love the artist has put into his brush strokes…

This is not a painting of a vain nor vile woman. This is a painting of a woman who has presence. I see her feathered fan, and I feel drawn to love her quiet boldness, and admire her mein and want to know all about her life.

The “art critic’s” commentary tells nothing of what a woman who loves color and artfulness would think or feel– nor a man, as she/ he comes into her/his years. The interpretation is clearly exactly the vapid  view the overculture teaches some to see in age, cheaply that is… as my grandmother used to say, “with so narrow a point of view the person can see through a keyhole with both eyes.”

This time of age is a poignant time for being, dressing, acting, learning, living artfuly. Not in spite of age, but BECAUSE of it. This is our time to flower in any and every way we wish. Not in spite of our challenges, but BECAUSE of them. It is laughable that the overculture would like to define what ‘coming to terms’ with each stage of our lives ought look like, act like… when the overculture still thinks the answer to most challenges is war.

I believe this is a portrait of the artist’s mother whom the artist protected and loved. And she protected him. Note in the mirror, the eye of the younger woman is the same shape as the old woman’s eyes. This is not a painting about vanity; it’s a painting about resonance. about generations.  The painting says she is as gentle, tender, lovely scented, and fresh as the flower she holds, that though the flower is cut, there are more where that came from, and in seasons…

and  that she is genteel and grand in her own one-of-a-kind way. That’s the operative phrase: though the culture teaches we all ought be sliced and filleted into the same shape…. The dangerous old woman says otherwise: We are here on earth, each of us, to become one-of-a-kind. And to thereby lead the way, piece by piece, note by note, to a finer world of human beings, creatures and nature, a world  worth living in… where wise women don’t ask what a person looks like, dresses like, nor demand that all ought be/act alike… where wise women are far more concerned with whether the heart is good, whether one’s care for self and others is evident, whether the spirit is  interested and interesting, whether the soul enacts its promises, and finds its grace notes daily.

Because such women know that to “live and let live,” is not enough, but rather  to “live and love and let live,” is just the useful credo… because such women do not follow the ‘cultural partyline’ about how to see the world or their lives…. because they strive to love and hold boundaries, because they believe in protecting what is precious and cannot be allowed to perish from this earth–  they resist being trained to pretend they are  indecently empty-headed or content to live as depotentiated know-nothings … Thereby such women are the most dangerous women of all.

And there are more dangerous women on the face of the earth right now, than ever, ever, ever before in all of human history.

Stand back.


This page is from the manuscript, The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype, by Dr. C.P. Estés, ©1989, 1999, 2010. All Rights Reserved. May be used non-commericially if not shortened nor added to, and each usage carrying this entire notice. Thank you. Other permissions ngandelman@aol.com


CODA: Image of painting: Old Woman in the Mirror, Moscow Museum.

The painting is 53 inches tall and 42.5 inches wide, not a heroic sized work as usually done by commission in those times, but rather the size is human sized, intimate. Its soft colors  by modern name of pigments might be acra violent, scarlet lake, and red ochre and pinks… all these he has mixed to detail the softness of the old woman’s expression.

Backstory: The critic fails to compare this unique work with the rest of the painter Bernardo Strozzi’s body of work… that is, with Strozzi’s other life stories. If you want to know an artist’s work, you have to also know their life.

The Old Woman In the Mirror and two others of Strozzi’s are untypical of his oevre. This may be because those three paintings were rendered with love and affection instead of as ‘earning-a-living commissions’ like most of his other worlds. Thus, one of his atypical paintings shows a lovely plump slumbering child with red ribbons. Another depicts an amazing old woman with the wing of an angel appearing to sprout from her back. This winged appearance comes from the placement of a large angel offset behind the old woman. These two paintings and Old Woman in the Mirror, are rendered with grace and generousity and blood red color, very different from Strozzi’s usual works which are dark/ light Caravaggio-type scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

I feel certain this beautiful old woman featured here is Strozzi’s mother, as is the old woman in the other atypical painting in which she appears to be, by juxtaposition, single-winged.

There’s likely a reason Strozzi imagined his mother juxtaposed with an angel…  Strozzi entered the Capuchin monastery de Santa Barbara in Genoa. He desired to leave the monastery to paint, but the convening government of his time attempted to force him back into service as a monk. They imprisoned him.

It is said it was his mother who, in some medieval version the modern day mother of Pat Tillman, confronted the chuch-government officials, and would not go away until they released her son.

Dangerous old woman.

  1. Whoa! As I was reading the words, I felt caught up a tiny bit in the critics words, even tho’, that’s not what I see in the picture either! Inside voice defending the right to love color and self at all moments, Thank YOU for that teaching!!!

  2. Her arm is curled and her breast is bared as though nursing a child we cannot see.


  3. Thank you Dr. E, for I live in Greece and am struggling with family and culture at trying to find the strength to find out my uniquness which everyone sees as “strange” and quilty for trying -because at my age it should all be over.You have inspired me and have been there in my darkest hours and still are. Bless you,Eleana

  4. This is a powerful reminder of the overculture and how it tries to relegate us into sameness, not uniqueness, our birthright. Thanks Dr. E, for the truth of our strength as dangerous old women, a good art history lesson too. I love your words that there are many sides to everything. lcj

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