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The Old Man (Yellow Beard)

Jeanette M. Smith, MD
JAMA. 2013;309(16):1659. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.1594.
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Faces such as those of a favorite elderly uncle with twinkly eyes and crinkly grin, and the friend with kind eyes and calm countenance who is a steadying influence during the occasional existential crisis, are all imprinted on the mind's eye. Expressionist painter Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), born near Torzhok, Russia, was driven to reveal the essential character behind faces such as these using high-voltage, arresting color.

As a child, Jawlensky was likely immersed in the traditions and imagery of religious icons and described a “miraculous Madonna icon” seen in his childhood: “This icon had three precious coats, one of gold, one of coral and one with pearls and diamonds.” (Schampers K. Alexej von Jawlensky. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam; 1994:274.) Jawlensky identified with the mystical aspects of such phenomena, and his sense of the spiritual would have a lifelong effect on his work.

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Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), The Old Man (Yellow Beard), 1912, Russian. Oil on board. 26.7 × 48.6 cm. Courtesy of the Indiana University Art Museum (http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/iuam_home.php), Bloomington; Jane and Roger Wolcott Memorial Gift of Thomas T. Solley, 75.14. Photograph by Michael Cavanagh and Kevin Montague.

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