Artists over 50: better late than ever? | The Guardian (01 Sept. 2014)

As a new exhibition of late-period Turners opens at Tate Britain, curator Sam Smiles asks if it’s time art outgrew its obsession with age.  

Undiminished … JMW Turner's War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet. Photograph: Sam Drake/Tate London.

Undiminished … JMW Turner’s War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet. Photograph: Sam Drake/Tate London.

By the end of the year Britain will have seen three major exhibitions devoted to the work of artists at the end of their careers – Matisse,Turner and Rembrandt. Add to these the poignant last paintings currently on view in Tate Modern‘s Malevich exhibition, and we have an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of late work in the visual arts. It’s a common belief, after all, that the last works of great creative artists are more profound than anything they produced in the rest of their careers. So-called “late work” is often the most radical and the most mysterious art of its time, quite at odds with contemporary voices, and we have come to relish it for just this intransigence and non-conformity.

Yet the idea that late works are especially significant would have astonished our forebears. Less than 200 years ago, late-life creativity was almost a contradiction in terms. The traditional view was of a three-stage development from apprenticeship to mastery and then to creative decline – if the artist managed to survive into old age.

Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Artists and often described as the first art historian, said of the elderly Titian that, “it would have been well for him in these his last years not to work save as a pastime, so as not to diminish with works of less excellence the reputation gained in his best years, when his natural powers were not declining and drawing towards imperfection”. What was true of Titian in particular was true of artists in general, with some very rare exceptions.

Artists weren’t the only ones whose last works were deemed to be inevitably inferior. It was accepted as a universal phenomenon, and in the 19th century the new science of statistics seemed to confirm this story of peak and decline. George Miller Beard’s Legal Responsibility in Old Age (1874), for example, proposed that 70% of the work of the world is completed before the age of 45, 80% before 50 and hardly anything worthwhile in any field is accomplished thereafter.

It was not until the early decades of the 20th century that late-life creativity in the arts began to be celebrated routinely, but the first stirrings of this idea began in the middle of the 19th century. Jacob Burckhardt, for example, felt it necessary to pause in the middle of Der Cicerone – his guide to the art of the Italian renaissance – to point out to his presumably sceptical readers that “several of the greatest artists [Leonardo, Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Michelangelo] produced most of their works and their best at a late period in life, at least after their 50th year …”

Rembrandt''s Self Portrait (1669)

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait (1669), painted when he was 63. Photograph: The National Gallery

Burckhardt wrote his book at a time when two of the most influential figures of the age had thrown down a major challenge to the critics. The last works ofBeethoven and Goetheconfounded conventional standards. When compared with the works of their early maturity, Beethoven’s late string quartets or his Choral Symphony and Goethe’s second part of Faust could seem mannered and self-indulgent, but it was clear to some that these works needed to be judged by other criteria.

By 1880 a music critic could refer to “the so-called ‘late Beethoven'” as an established reference point. And in 1878 Beethoven’s example was invoked by one of Turner’s champions, William Kingsley, to defend his last watercolours: “These late Swiss drawings bear the same relation to his early work that Beethoven’s Choral Symphony does to one of the simple movements of his early pianoforte sonatas.”

Goethe’s last works were also highly admired as an example of radical invention in old age, leading to the formal identification of old-age style (Altersstil) as a specific aesthetic phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century “late work”, “late style” and “old-age style” began to establish themselves within the lexicon.

The phrase “the late work” is now routinely applied to the final phase of many artists’ careers, from Michelangelo to Picasso. The old prejudice has been overcome and we accept that the late work, far from declining, may be as significant as anything else in the oeuvre, may even be the most important work some artists ever produced. While this has been a welcome rebalancing of attitudes, it has occasionally led unwary commentators to make general statements about the nature of “late work” in the abstract as though it is always and everywhere the same phenomenon. But why should that be so?

It is often proposed that the proximity of death stimulates artists to turn inwards and concentrate on the essence of their practice at the expense of public understanding. Late works are often radical works, incomprehensible as far as contemporary opinion is concerned. Is the late work a crowning finale to a life’s work, a creative last will and testament for the benefit of subsequent generations?

Such thinking flatters us moderns, who see merit where the artist’s critics saw decline, who can value what may have been scorned, and for that very reason we should guard against it. Just as importantly, any emphasis on the presumed universal qualities of late style means setting aside the precise situation in which the artist was working. It proposes that the artist in question is better understood outside society, withdrawing from it to confront the eternal questions, or even out of time, producing work that makes sense only in the context of much more recent developments. Of course, it’s true that our experience of modernism has inevitably affected how we experience the art of the past. The much more difficult task is to try to see historic works in all their contemporary richness, most especially perhaps when these are late works. Regarding Turner, say, as a modernist prophet robs his art of its complex relationship to Victorian England.

And then there’s the problem with the term itself. “The late work” seems entirely innocuous, yet once one begins to question how it’s used, let alone what it actually means, problems begin to multiply. How long is a late period? The last 10 years of a career? The last five? It seems to be an entirely arbitrary decision. It can’t be attributed simply on the basis of age, either, for not every elderly artist is considered to have produced distinctive late works. And because people’s experience of old age is highly varied, age itself tells you nothing about an artist’s work.

Henri Matisse's The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952)

Henri Matisse’s The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952). Photograph: Stedelijk/Tate Modern

Of course there are some artists whose final works were clearly affected by an infirmity associated with ageing (Matisse, say, or de Kooning), but for others age is relatively insignificant as regards their development (Tintoretto, perhaps, or Braque).

Finally, how does age enter the reckoning for the late works of those who died relatively young and ended their creative careers in their 30s (Mozart and Raphael) or 40s (Shakespeare)?

Is style the answer, then? What if an artist’s final manner of working differs significantly from the work that preceded it? This seems like the best solution but it actually narrows the field of potential candidates for late work very severely. Artists associated with decisive breaks do exist – for example Philip Guston, who renounced his abstract practice when he was in his mid-50s and returned to figuration. But, given what we know of his motives, “late style” is the least useful way of understanding this development. For the rest, the overwhelming majority of so-called late styles are the culmination of a steady process of evolution rather than an abrupt transformation of working practices. The later works of Titian, Rembrandt, Turner and Monet, to take four obvious examples, show deep continuities with their previous phases of development.

Let us return to where we started: Matisse, Turner, Rembrandt and Malevich. Here are four artists, working in very different personal and historical circumstances and in very different stylistic idioms. As their exhibitions show, it is more informative and illuminating to respect the precise situation in which each body of work was made.

Likewise, rather than assuming that late works, by their very nature, are testaments left behind for posterity to decipher, we can demystify them by seeing them simply as the latest phase in a development that was only brought to a close by the artist’s death.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern until 7 September;Malevich is at Tate Modern until 26 October; Late Turner: Painting Set Free is at Tate Britain from 10 September-25 January and Rembrandt: the Late Works is at the National Gallery from 15 October 2014–18 January.



Sam Smiles. “Artists over 50: Better Late than Ever?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 Sept. 2014. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <>.