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Claude Monet And The 'Old Age Style'

03/02/2017 04:43 EST | Updated 03/02/2017 04:46 EST
Andrew Kelly / Reuters
A woman views an example of Claude Monet's Water Lilies, estimated between $35-40 million, ahead of a preview event to Sotheby's upcoming evening's of impressionist, modern and contemporary art in the Manhattan borough of New York City May 1, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

"Life," Truman Capote claimed, "is a moderately good play with a badly written third act." Quite how bad that third act can be, in terms of creative effort, was graphically illustrated in 1874 by an American physician named George M. Beard. Dr. Beard parsed the lives and careers of dozens of artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, from Descartes to Dickens, in search of "the period, the decade, and year of maximum productiveness," as well as the years of lowest productivity.

His findings make for grim reading for anyone over the age of 50: 80 per cent of the world's greatest artistic masterpieces, brilliant philosophical insights and important scientific discoveries were made by those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. If the "golden decade" fell in the 30s, and the "silver" the 40s, septuagenarians languished in what Beard dubbed the "wooden decade."

A few years after Beard's account, another American physician, Alfred L. Loomis, threw this steady decline down the decades into stark medical relief. Expanding on the work of a French doctor, J.-M. Charcot, Loomis's Clinical Lectures on the Diseases of Old Age charted, with sobering clinical detail, a full range of old-age maladies. Not only did the aged endure expanding prostates and loosening sphincters, but also the memory loss, confusion and fretfulness brought on by 'cerebral softening'. A new medical discipline -- christened "geriatrics" in 1909 -- was born.

As the twentieth century dawned, young prodigies were in, bearded sages out. Einstein famously declared: "A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so."

For artists who did plough on into their 60s, 70s and 80s, a cruel and hostile reception often awaited. Contemporaries often failed to appreciate their efforts, watching piteously or contemptuously as, it seemed, dimming eyesight and trembling hands worked to unravel even the greatest reputations. Giorgio Vasari wrote of the elderly Titian (who claimed, five years before his death in 1576, that he was 95) 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."

Even harsher were the assessments of J.M.W. Turner's landscapes, painted in the 1830s and 1840s, when he was in his 60s and 70s. These energetic, swirling canvases resulted in much apoplectic criticism, with Turner's "mad exaggerations" and "absurd antics" blamed on poor eyesight, secret Catholic leanings, and "a state of senile decrepitude."

Yet where these earlier critics and connoisseurs witnessed only a sharp artistic downswing, later generations found in Turner a dramatic raging against the dying of the light -- a pushing of the artistic boundaries in new directions that younger artists would later explore. Within a half-century of his death, his late paintings came to be reevaluated by a new generation who could see his exuberant brushwork and brilliant treatment of light as prophesies of Impressionism.

The greatest example of artistic achievement in old age is, however, Claude Monet. His extremely long and productive career -- which stretched from the early 1860s through the mid-1920s -- demolishes statistics about a drop-off in productivity and creativity with the decrements of age. Monet's 20s and 30s, when he was at the forefront of the Impressionist movement, marked a revolution in painting. But the work he did in his 70s and 80s is, arguably, even more radical, visionary and technically challenging.

The story of Monet's last dozen years makes a great epilogue to a life of triumphant struggle. After temporarily retiring at the age of 73, following the death of his wife and a diagnosis of cataracts, the painter reemerged on the eve of WWI to begin the largest and most ambitious canvases of his entire career.

Executed in the last dozen years of his life, these works mark his final artistic statement: a series of some 50 massive works to which he gave the resounding name "La Grande Décoration." They were certainly a grand obsession. In his final years he became what one of his artistic idols, the Japanese artist Hokusai, called himself -- "an old man mad about painting."

These large-scale compositions, some of them more than 40 feet across, captured his glowing, shimmering water lily pond through all the seasons, in all weathers, under varying conditions of light. Eight of them, representing more than 6,000 square feet of canvas, were unspooled along the walls of the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris in May 1927, five months after his death. Predictably, perhaps, the initial reviews were harsh. "We prefer the surprising feats of virtuosity of his youth and maturity," declared one obituarist in 1926. The apparent lack of focus and sometimes tempestuous brushwork of these last paintings were chalked up to the artist's advancing years and problems with his eyesight.

However, as with Turner, a new generation of younger painters would soon see Monet with fresh eyes. By the 1950s his grandiose, semi-abstract, all-over canvases suddenly looked contemporary, like heralds of Abstract Expressionism. Young American painters such as Sam Francis and Ellsworth Kelly made eager pilgrimages to Giverny. Two others, Joan Mitchell and her partner, the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, bought a house on the property in Vétheuil where, many decades earlier, Monet had lived and worked. The Museum of Modern Art in New York hastily began acquiring his late Water Lilies. "Old man Monet," as Willem de Kooning called him, had become the wise elder passing on his insights to a generation at last ready to heed his message.

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