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Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph

Last week was my 67th birthday, so Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph, by Richard Lacayo and published today, seemed to be a vitalizing choice.

The book gives a quick sweeping overview of artists who have worked to a ripe old age.

It’s surprising how many artists have lived well past seventy. Even in centuries when life expectancy, held in check by bad hygiene, poor nutrition, and guessing-game medicine, was a fraction of what it is now, they often made it to a remarkable age. For every Raphael or Van Gogh who left this world in his or her thirties, there’s a very long A-list of artists who reached their eighties and nineties, And older….

Better still, many of those men and women remained productive to the end. Almost by definition artists are people who spend a lifetime doing what they love. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming af Age, her book-length examination of later life: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence, political, intellectual or creative work.” If it’s true, as some researchers tell us, that contentment correlated with longevity, is it any surprise that the people who do this kind of thing for a living rarely retire? “Happiness is work.” Words the aging Paul Cézanne fixed to the wall of his studio in Provence.

Throughout history, countless artists have lived in accord with Cézanne’s motto. Crippled by arthritis, the elderly Auguste Renoir went on painting with his hands strapped tightly on bandages. On the day before he died he completed a still life. Until nearly the end of her long life, in 2010, Louise Bourgeois drew almost every day. (Or night—she was an insomniac and drawing helped her sleep.) Around 12515, the year before he died, Giovanni Bellini produced his first full-length nude, an elegant young woman coolly appraising her own charms in a hand-held mirror. He was eighty-five when he had the pleasure of revisiting her image regularly in his studio, gently touching her up with his brush.

But the book then develops its themes by focusing on six artists: the Italian Renaissance painter Titian; Francisco José de Goya, Spanish painter of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries; the French painters Claude Monet and Henri Matisse, from the 19th and 20th Centuries; the 20th Century American painter Edward Hopper; and the 20th Century American sculptor Louise Nevelson.

Lacayo is looking for artists who went big in their final years, both literally and metaphorically, rather than artists who seemed on autopilot in their later years. Titian’s late turn to a loose, hectic slashing style of brushwork visually bewildered his contemporaries, but today is one of the most appreciated examples of his genius. Likewise, Monet’s climactic panoramic series of water lilies had his contemporaries wondering if the artist’s cataracts had diminished his abilities. Today, these monumental works are lauded as precursors of abstract expressionism and other 20th Century art movements. The amazing paper-cut art that Matisse turned to in his later years was dismissed by many as childish, “an agreeable distraction,” in the words of French critic Christian Zervos.

There is a thread of ageism running through much of the criticism older artist receive for perceived changes in their styles. It must be cataracts, the arthritic hands can’t hold a brush well, the chronic pain has darkened their worldview, not as sharp as they used to be. One of Titian’s contemporaries, Giorgio Vasari, called the painter’s late work ‘pittura a maccia’—‘patchy painting’—and attributed it to the artist’s failing faculties, the weak eyes and shaky hands. But art historians now view Titian’s later work to be a choice, a brilliant evolution that added a dimension to painting, using the texture of oil paint to add a new dimension to the canvas, freeing it from the flat, mannered canvases that predominated before. There are hints of this style in some of his earlier work, as well as examples of more traditional brushstroke in his late period. No, it was a choice, a breaking free, an experimentation.

Lacayo notes some similarities in the artists’ late work; that aforementioned drive to ‘go big,’ for example. Monet’s Water Lilies was a monumental work that filled the space of the Orangerie in Paris. Both Goya and Matisse filled entire walls of their homes and studios with their late output. Louise Nevelson produced her largest sculptures yet.

But mostly, the book takes a deep dive into the lives and work of his six chosen artists, and the different challenges and responses they produced. Goya seemed as driven by the ravages of the politics of his era as by the ravages of his ageing. His intense series of Black Paintings were produced after a couple of near-fatal illnesses, as well as his despair over humankind after the Napoleonic Wars and the turmoil in the Spanish government. And yet that was not his final artistic statement.  Even later in life, as the political situation improved even as his health deteriorated, he managed to produce drawings laced with humor, and even mastered new techniques in lithography and creating ivory miniatures.

Monet suffered one of his worst bouts of artistic blockage when he turned seventy, not picking up a brush for over a year, grieving the loss of his wife. It would be a complicated path before he turned his long obsession with painting water lilies into his monumental work of stunning light. Matisse, on the other hand, found that the divide in his life at age seventy, causes by war, illness and lost love, was somehow liberating, and he adopted his new technique of paper cut-outs. His ‘Jazz’ series are joyous and playful, yet also have an undercurrent of the end of life: “That’s when you realize that that Matisse has smuggled an anxious counternarrative into this otherwise merry volume—so much that parts of Jazz feel like he’s working on variations of Death’s tart reminder to humanity: ‘et in Arcadio ego’ — ‘Even in Paradise, there I am.’”

And so it goes, as we face the challenges of growing older. A wealth of history and experience, the dread of more precarious health and of the final mystery that beckons, a measure of freedom a not-giving-a-f*ck attitude. As Matisse once said, “it took me sixty years to organize my brain.” In all, not a bad birthday read.