Art historians often note that artists who live long and productive lives become much “looser” in their later work: fewer brushstrokes, less detail. I can name at least a dozen artists from Titian to Matisse, El Greco, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Velasquez, just a few off the top of my head. Just compare the refined and detailed Pieta Michelangelo created as a young man to the powerful, more expressive version he did at the end of his life.
The explanation we usually hear is the “less is more” theory, that the more skilled an artist becomes, the less effort it takes, the fewer brushstrokes he needs to evoke a scene, a face, a hand. It is assumed that years of experience have given him the ability to reduce images, Turner-like, to their bare essentials. This may very well be true, but, having taught art history for over twenty years and being a working artist of advanced years myself, I’ve come up with another theory. Maybe an older artist just can’t see well enough to do the detailed work he or she did when they were younger. Cataracts? Myopia?
To test my theory, I looked up the history of eyeglasses and although they were first invented in the 13th century, until relatively recently they were mostly crude magnifiers. Today you can go into any CVS and, for a few dollars come up with a fairly good corrective lens for aging eyes. Even better, you can go to an eye doctor and get your eyes ‘redone.’
The problem with scholars who write art history is that they are not artists themselves, although many will brag of having been a ‘painting major’ at one time or another. They know a lot about art theory, but they never walked in an artists’ shoes, so to speak. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of well-intentioned misinformation getting transmitted to students.
I ran my “weak eyesight” theory by a friend who taught printmaking for many years. She’s an authority on Goya and Rembrandt, two artists whose work definitely became freer as they got older. She believes it might have been arthritis, (she has arthritis) as well as failing eyesight that changed their work. Whatever the explanation, it’s reassuring to know that as an older artist, despite my infirmities, I could actually be doing my best work. Towards the end of his life, Matisse was only able to work a couple of hours a day; he had severe arthritis and heart disease and was largely bedridden. But this was when he created some of his best work, the giant cutouts he drew with a long pool cue with a piece of chalk attached.
Three months ago, I had a small stroke, not noticeable to an outsider, but bad enough to keep my left hand (the one I draw and paint with) from functioning properly. After I came back from the hospital, I decided to assess the damage by tracing a large projected image in charcoal onto a blank canvas. Much to my dismay, I found I had lost control of the hand; nothing came out the way it was supposed to. I would tell my hand to ‘draw a straight line’ but the line would come out crooked. ‘Go left’, and it would go right. Could I ever paint again? But when I stepped back and looked at my six-foot “failure,” I decided it was one of the best drawings I had ever done. Pure German Expressionism; it could have been by Kokoschka. I sprayed it with fixative and decided to wait and see what was going to happen. Lately, my left hand has begun to follow orders again, but my artwork is no longer as wildly wonderful as it was when it was out of control.
p.s. While I’m still not fully able to control a paintbrush, for some odd reason, I can still draw on a small scale and create fine cut-outs with scissors. The illustrations for this blog were taken from a recent series of drawings in white crayon on 7” black paper plates. Looks like my hand does pretty well on its own.