Life’s Afternoon: Making Art in Old Age

Monet at Giverny

In her New York Times review of the new book by Nicholas Delbanco, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Brooke Allen makes it clear that she, like me, was excited about the topic. Making art when you are older: What shifts? What shows up? What happens to our expression as we age?

While Allen wasn’t satisfied with Delbanco’s undertaking (and put a call out for someone to take on the topic and do it up right), her review is full of memorable commentary. She includes reference to a famous poem by Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” that speaks to what can happen, how there is a “distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials”:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

Delbanco’s book questions why some artists continue to produce great work in their later years (such as Matisse, Monet, Picasso) while others hit a high point when they are young and then give in to the slow entropic demise of growing old. This old vs new productivity was the topic of a fascinating book by David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and his approach to the topic is quantitative and linear. It is a valuable lens on a topic that still, in my opinion, is full of mystery and the unanswerable.

A passage from Allen’s review is worth keeping in mind:

Delbanco treats his material in anecdotal fashion and draws few conclusions from his research, though clearly some generalizations can and must be made. Look at Michelangelo’s half-finished “Slaves,” apparently struggling to escape their blocks of marble; Titian’s “Death of Actaeon”; Verdi’s “Otello”; Liszt’s “Czardas Macabre”; Francis Bacon’s minimalist late works. All these suggest that the aesthetic of old age involves a slimming down and stripping away. Delbanco does remark on this syndrome in individual cases: he is surely correct to emphasize, for instance, Monet’s “Nymphéas” and the other late-period Giverny works, in which, “if his vision now was less than ­­20-20, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy.” He discusses the same qualities in “The Winter’s Tale” (though Shakespeare, dead at 52, was not quite old even by 17th-century standards): “The late plays,” Delbanco observes, “are less sequence-bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as though the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice.”

This is true, and Delbanco offers one intriguing explanation. In youth, he posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward. But this is surely not the only reason for the concentrated effect of late style. The simple specter of mortality must count for something: as Samuel Johnson remarked in a different context, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And then there is the radical shifting of perspective and values brought about by age, something to which people past their 50th birthdays can attest. Delbanco quotes Carl Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

I was so struck by Allen’s phrase, “the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.” That’s a shift I can attest to.

11 Comment

  1. Wow. great post, with lots to think about. The Yeats poem is lovely. Although the word “wither” doesn’t quite resonate with me, the image of the many leaves and flowers but the one root feels just right at this stage of life.

    For me, the great rule of life, which helps me understand so much, is: Forms change.

  2. Maureen says:

    I thought you might highlight this review, which makes for your wonderful post.

    It’s interesting for me to be where I am now at 58, thinking about how different my poetry is today from what I wrote in my ’20s and ’30s. I put it down to life experience and a determined effort to stay with the writing and not be concerned with the publishing. The latter was freeing and the former essential.

  3. Sally, I want to write those words on my mirror: Forms change. (And the mirror, it don’t lie!) Thanks for that.

    Maureen, I feel very similarly. I often think of Maya Lin, who, as my architect friend commented to me after watching the Oscar-winning documentary about her, “How would it be to have reached the pinnacle in your work at age 19?” I feel like my best is yet to come.

    1. John Langell says:

      Is Maya Lin’s reaction to that assessment known?

  4. Deborah, I haven’t gotten to Sunday’s Times yet, but I will certainly look for this book review. Thanks for posting about it. I’m with you that I think my best is yet to come and certainly now that I have hit (and then some) retirement age, so many wonderful things are happening with my work. I always feel sorry for those who hit the peak of the arc in youth and then have the long slide down. I’ve only hit my stride in the past couple of years and who knows what lies ahead. The adventure is just engaged.

  5. John Langell says:

    Nice post, Deb, provocative. A quibble: the phrase “entropic demise” grated. While true for some, for me one of life’s ironies is that as the years go by many of us beat back entropy, or try, at least cognitively, adding to and refining our store of knowledge, experience, and dare I say wisdom, only to have it extinguished — poof! Perhaps like Yeats or Monet, we leave behind a few post cards, which bear the same relationship to our store of experience as real post cards to the excursion from which they were sent.
    Another “artist”, Jack LaLanne, kept entropy at bay too, having exercised “nearly every day” until he died at age 96, his perfect body having come to naught — let entropy reign!. Along the lines of your post, it seems more than plausible that with aging, his physical exertions were increasingly for his own pleasure (and to extend the adventure, no doubt).

  6. Nancy, you are an exemplary poster girl for this concept. Don’t stop now!

    John, I have no idea how Maya Lin views the trajectory of her career. The comment was made by a very successful architect friend who has had a long and productive life. I was immediately struck by his point of view. So enamored with Maya Lin (and the documentary I mentioned is very well done) and her work, I hadn’t parsed the story quite like that.

    As for “entropic demise”: it grates on me too. Oh that we could all keep it at bay, whether through extraordinary art or professionally executed exercise. But at night I still hear it clawing at my door.

  7. Maureen says:

    Just came back and read the comments here.

    I went to an event at the Corcoran for a Maya Lin exhibit of new work (which is fabulous). She attended and gave a brief talk. One thing she mentioned several times, because those in the audience kept mentioning it, is the focus on the Vietnam Memorial; while she acknowledges and is grateful that so many people acknowledge that work, she’s not particularly interested in talking about it. She’s definitely moved on. I find her enormously creative and after spending some time looking at her new work, I don’t think she has by any means reached the pinnacle. But that’s just my own humble opinion.

  8. M, I am a big fan of ML and will continue to be. Her work is subtle, intelligent and often deeply moving. And how lucky that you were able to hear her speak at the Corcoran and see the show. (I hope to get to DC in time myself.)

    But I do think there is a reasonable case to be made that the memorial she designed in a flash of brilliance as an undergraduate at Yale is still her best work. Of course she doesn’t want to keep talking about it. She, like all of us who are makers, believes that her best work is yet to come. And she may be right, the best may not have appeared yet. But she has become, whether it is fair or not, the most famous example of an art prodigy who hasn’t achieved anything quite as powerful and memorable as the monument she designed when she was 19.

    Thanks for this Maureen. You always add value. And hope you are safe and warm–Dave was in DC yesterday for meetings and ended up having his afternoon flight home canceled out of Dulles. He caught the last Washington Flyer to the Metro, but that proved to be a fateful ride. Eight hours later, after the bus riders all had to get out and push, they arrived at Falls Church station at 2:30 in the morning. Good thing we have a son with a 4 wheel who didn’t mind getting awakened at that hour for a rescue. Crazy.

  9. Brendan says:

    The real question for me is how some artists manage to stay fertile and fecund into old age, outliving even their famous (or at least, earlier aspiring) tropes. Play and fascination are qualities of an engaged mind, young or old; perhaps it takes a certain humility — that nothing yet has been really accomplished — that has one returning to the sandbox.

  10. Remarkably well written blog post…

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