The Unequal Couple

(Photo: Kunstpalast Duesseldorf)

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting The Unequal Couple (Old Man in Love) illustrates exchange in the marriage market.  An unusually looks-challenged old man, holding a gorgeous necklace, embraces a beautiful young woman, who seems pleased with the arrangement.  

Nearly 500 years ago, Cranach recognized that in the marriage market men typically exchange their earning ability for a woman’s looks and reproductive ability.  That is probably less true today than in Cranach’s time (early 16thcentury), but the evidence shows it is still partly valid.


A more prosperous society reduces the power of the wealthiest. That's why we see fewer marriages like that, and fewer people volunteering to work in sweatshops.


What's your evidence?


It's not the level of prosperity, but the degree of economic inequality, that will determine the degree of exploitation/exploitability. If the society is rich, but wealth is concentrated in the hands of one (or a few) individual(s), you'd better believe the resulting power imbalance will be abused. This reveals THE fundamental flaw in the neocon-conservative corporatist world-view.


In the 16th century, it wasn't the wealthy old man marrying a poverty-stricken peasant. He was marrying a much younger, but probably still upper-class, woman.

T Niescier

I can't help but notice that there's a distinct resemblance between Hamermesh and the old man! A distant relative, perhaps? She seems to like your beard :)

Tim Dellinger

To turn this into an interesting blog post, you could have included links to studies showing how men tend to signal wealth and resources during mate attraction, while women tend to signal attractiveness and willingness to procreate.

And then there are the usual follow-on discussions that could have been linked to about the mismatch between our modern conceptions of marriage and our "lizard brain" impulses, and how we (to a certain amount of success, but imperfectly) use higher reasoning to navigate this mismatch, both at an individual level and at a cultural level.

lemmy caution

Does the "lizard brain" understand the concept of jewelry? Hunter-gatherers don't have portable valuables. There is no reason for women t0 be evolved to be attracted to men who have access to gold or precious stones. Does the man in that picture look like someone it would be a good idea for the women to have babies with in a hunter-gatherer society?

Andreas Moser

This different behaviour in men and women also explains the persistence of the gender pay gap:

Andreas Moser

I actually don't find the woman in the painting beautiful at all, though.


You're not a 16th century German.

She has long, fully colored hair, which implies good nutrition for several prior years. She has wide hips, which implies lower probability of death in childbirth. The shape of the cheeks and jaw suggest a full head of teeth - a rare and sexy feature in the 16th century. All that healhty exposed skin without blemishes mean both good nutrition and that she skipped all sorts of diseases included smallpox and measles. a word, smokin' HOT.


You got it! I've read historical books where women with faces like frying pans were considered great beauties simply because those faces were unblemished, no scars from smallpox. Good health was sexier than any amount of (primitive) cosmetics or strange clothing. When age 40 was considered OLD...young n' healthy was the way to go. And marriages were arranged for politics and profit, not for loooovvve....old rich geezer? A real catch!

Eric M Jones

" That is probably less true today than in Cranach’s time"....

That is probably less true today that it was prior to The Pill.

Happy Valentiner

Seems like many middle to upper middle class women want a man to provide them with economic security. At least, that is the way it is among the 30's and up crowd in my town. But Surely, I would imagine this would depend upon homelife. My dad was a controlling son of a gun. Alot of tension in the house as a result. My husband is a sweet heart. He tells me that I am spending too much and usually, I come around to agreeing with him i.e., when he is correct. and when I don't, I speak my mind. Not all relations are grounded upon the economics of exchange. in my case, we take care of one another in the ways that we each need it. And generally this works for us. But there is one thing that makes it work. We respect each other and that is the bottom line. I take what he says to heart. Would not have it any other way.


" typically exchange their earning ability for a woman’s looks and reproductive ability."

I have to wonder, though: in today's world, what fraction of men actively want to reproduce, as opposed to having recreational sex with a hot babe? Certainly from my (admittedly limited) observation has been that it is more often women who actively want to reproduce, and who seek out partners who they believe will make reproduction & child-rearing possible.

Eric M. Jones

Okay, so we feel sorry for the girl....but the ol' man had about ten more days to live and then she wound up with all his estate. can't see it, but there is a Harley Davidson parked just off to the left.


My wife earns three times my income, does that mean that I'm a boy toy she bought?


Cool story bro


I recall a quote from somewhere, "When I was a young man I thought beautiful young women who went with older, wealthy men were shallow and materialistic but since I've matured and achieved financial security I'm not too proud to say I was wrong."

lemmy caution

"A common theme in the Flemish and German-speaking world was that of the ill-matched couple or unbalanced love, a subject frequently depicted by Cranach and his workshop. The theme, taken from textual sources from antiquity and sixteenth century Germanic literature, represented young women who grant their favours to older wealthy men in exchange for money and jewels, or (more rarely) older women seeking the attentions of young men as in the painting from Budapest, the first in this popular series. In addition to the disapprobation of such degenerate morals and the condemnation of such conduct, it is evident that these representations emphasise the ridiculous aspects of human nature."

The old men in those paintings look ridiculous and are hideously ugly. They are being criticized for their foolishness and lack of virility.