In “Last Light, How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph,” the art critic Richard Lacayo writes of Titian, Francisco Goya, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper and Louise Nevelson, and shows that each artist continued to create, grow and generate a new art aesthetic despite the epidemics and wars that surrounded them, as well as their physical disabilities brought on by age and illness. To learn about the similar approach to creativity of these six seemingly unrelated artists makes “Last Light” an enlightening read. It also helps that Lacayo’s prose is precise, and his analysis of each artists’ late life flows naturally because his insights are based on his wide knowledge of art and world history. Context is given to the external and internal struggles of each artist.
Titian’s late style has been called “magic impressionism” because of the less-representational style he developed along with a looser brushstroke. In one of his last paintings, “Pietà,” the instability of the arched chapel that forms the background for Mary Magdalene, the Virgin, Christ and St. Jerome is jarring when compared to the stable compositions of his previous work, as is his palette of browns and eerie whites. Only the worshipful St. Jerome’s red cloak provides color. In his old age, rather than repeat himself, Titian painted in a new, impressionistic art style that broke Renaissance art strictures. Titian’s courage and commitment to his art is repeated by all the other artists in “Last Light.”
Goya lived through the Peninsular War and in his sixties and seventies drew humanity as monstrous in his lithograph series “The Disasters of War” and in the scenes of madness and violence, the Black Paintings, that he painted directly onto the walls of his home outside Madrid after the Spanish monarchy was restored. Today Goya is considered the father of Modernism because of these paintings and drawings. Important to note, however, is that after Goya found sanctuary in France, he began painting portraits again, painted miniatures on ivory, and in chalk and lithographic crayon drew himself as an ancient man with the title “Aún Aprendo” (I’m Still Learning).
Inspired by the garden and the pond in his Giverny home, Monet began his famous series of Water Lily paintings during the last twenty-six years of his life. In the early 1920s, in Monet’s honor, the French government built a permanent home at the Musée de l’Orangerie for eight of his water lily murals. The exhibition opened in 1927, a few months after Monet’s death in 1926 at eighty-two. Lacayo argues that in “the darker passages” of these late Water Lily paintings, “the world dematerializes, even to the point of extinction.” This is one of the reasons that Monet’s late work has been called abstract expressionism and is considered foundational to modern art.
Matisse, confined to his bed after surgery, didn’t stop creating during the last fourteen years of his life. Forced to find new ways to work, Matisse used paper cutouts to create masterpieces of pure color and form. He also designed a brilliant chapel for the town of Vence in the south of France. Hopper, only two years before his death in 1965, eliminated all material things from a room and painted “Sun in an Empty Room,” fulfilling his lifelong ambition of painting nothing but light. Lacayo calls this painting a precursor to minimalist abstraction. And Nevelson, who lived to be ninety years old, never stopped experimenting with materials and began to create confident outdoor installations.
“Last Light, How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph” is an engaging book about six master artists who created and innovated until the end of their lives. For readers of a certain age like me, it’s inspiring.
“Last Light, How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph”
By Richard Lacayo
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages