The truly Old Masters, Modern edition

matisse at workVolume 2 of our series “Truly Old Masters” focuses on Modern and Contemporary artists who lived long and fruitful lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (except Americans, who will be the subject of Volume 3). Since medical care improved considerably after 1900, it has become more and more common for artists to live to a ripe old age. That’s why for this volume we’ve raised the bar from 75 to 80 years old. Still, the list is long, even though it covers not much more than a century.

While there are plenty of artists who worry about aging, many celebrate it as an opportunity to do more and better work. To congratulate the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman on reaching his 70th birthday, the 77 year old film-maker Akira Kurosawa wrote to him about an artist who “bloomed when he reached eighty.” Kurosawa, who lived to 88 and continued to write films almost to the end, told Bergman that he realized his own work “was only beginning” and that artists are “not really capable of creating really good works until [they] reach the age of 80.”


Louise Bourgeois in 2009

Recent studies are debunking the old theories that great artists (and scientists, for that matter) do their best work by the time they are thirty. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois who lived nearly to 100, described herself as a ‘long distance runner.’ When she was 84, she was asked whether she could have made a recent work when she was younger. She replied, “Absolutely not.” When asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Old age is not without its hazards, but even they can be inspiring. Henri Matisse suffered from a near fatal illness in his seventies.  After he survived a dangerous surgery, he said,

“My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me. I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life.”

Despite being mostly bedridden, his ‘second life’ led to the exuberant, colorful paper cut-outs that occupied him for the rest of his life.

Below is a gallery of portraits and works by twentieth century artists who did not die young but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

Lead paint and Suffering Artists

Goya being treated by his doctor, 1820

Goya being treated by his doctor during his near-fatal illness in 1819.


The ‘suffering artist‘ became a theme almost simultaneously with artists becoming famous in the Renaissance.  Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th century autobiography contains in equal measures declarations of his achieving the impossible as an artist and collapses in his health when his work became “more than he could stand.” These would result in him throwing himself onto his supposed deathbed because of his trials and tribulations.  One can only sympathize with his poor housekeeper who had to withstand his cries of “I shall not be alive tomorrow” and “I feel I am dying!” while he ordered her about.

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic, Olga Khazan discusses a new journal article by Julio Montes-Santiago, a doctor from Spain, in her article called “How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?” While I usually am suspicious of articles in non-art oriented journals that pretend to ‘discover’ why an artist painted a certain way, there is no question that lead is a poison.  That’s why, even though it creates a warm, beautiful white, lead pigment is not used by commercial paint manufacturers anymore.  Dr. Montes-Santiago traces the history of ‘painters madness’ and the many famous artists and composers who may have suffered from it.  For example, he believes that one reason Michelangelo suffered from terrible kidney stones in his old age was his use of lead white paint.

Detail of Saturn Devouring his Son by Goya, 1819 - 1823
Saturn Devouring his Son (detail) by Goya, 1819 – 1823

Others have written of the impact the terrible illnesses that 19th century Romantic painter Francisco Goya suffered during his lifetime had on his career and the possibility that lead paint contributed to them (Goya was reputed to use enormous quantities of lead white in both his priming and paint).  Goya’s near deafness came after a  bout of illness in the 1790s and eventually forced him to leave his position as a teacher in the Academy (he couldn’t hear the students’ questions any longer).   Ultimately, he left the Spanish court as well and and retreated to what he called his “Deaf Man’s House” in the countryside, where he painted the famous Black Paintings, like “Saturn Devouring his Son.” Saturnism, ironically, is another word for ‘lead poisoning.’

Khazan’s article in the Atlantic discusses other writings on the subject of lead poisoning from the past as well and is an interesting discussion of how health issues may have haunted our favorite artists.  It’s well worth a look.