Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph by Richard Lacayo

“Ambition is a path, not a destination,” observed Wallace Stegner in Crossing to Safety (1987), “and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—pathway to the stars, maybe.”

“Great” artists are often but not invariably guided by Stegnerian ambition. For those who flourish in old age, however, there is no “unconsidered, merely indulged” alternative—certainly for none of Richard Lacayo’s subjects in Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph: Titian, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Hopper, and Nevelson. (Only the latter two are given first names in the book’s table of contents.)

Is there an element of self-help in Last Light? “This is not a self-help book,” Lacayo writes. Clear enough. He wishes instead “to consider what might have made the old artist depart from his or her younger self, to grasp the differences between an earlier practice and a later one, and to think about how old age can inform art and the process of making it,” and has no room for “the product of a once mighty talent on autopilot.”

Lacayo credits the 16th-century Venetian master Titian with one of Europe’s first distinctly “late” styles, characterizing it as “flickering fog” in contrast to the smoother, more conventional finishes of the works that had earlier brought him wealth and renown. Titian’s explanation in the 1550s would please Stegner: “I am not confident of achieving the delicacy and beauty of the brushwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Coreggio, and Parmigianino.... But ambition … urges me to choose a new path to make myself famous, much as the others acquired their own fame from the way which they followed.”

Its modesty does not convince Lacayo (or me), and probably encouraged scholars for whom “the rough passages in some of Titian’s late paintings are simply the stumblings of a dwindling master who couldn’t do any better.” Anyone who believes this cannot have seen The Death of Actaeon (circa 1559–75) or The Flaying of Marsyas (circa 1570–76), two of the most astonishing images in Western art.

The viewer of the elderly Goya’s output is struck not by diminished facility but by the work’s profound and pervasive darkness. A witness to the sadism of the Peninsular War with France (1808–14) and the Inquisition, Goya “operated in a deeper key than mere satirist, with a focus on truly lethal vices, the consequence of ignorance and superstition.”

Witches’ Flight, by Francisco de Goya.

The young, aspiring court painter of The Picnic (1776) would evolve into the deaf prophet of Witches’ Flight (1797–98), The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid (1814), and the harrowing Black Paintings (1820–23), which decorated his house on the outskirts of Madrid. These were not pictures designed to suit or edify royal taste. His “last work,” Lacayo asserts, “was an incendiary device that didn’t explode until it landed in the lap of the twentieth century, an era terrible enough to understand it, to find in the raging visions of his old age signs and signifiers of its own calamities.”

Turning to Monet, Lacayo notes that after the artist’s trip to Venice in 1908, he hardly ever left Giverny. In fact, from 1898, with few exceptions, Monet eschewed recognizably French subjects altogether. Whether disillusioned by the deaths of peers and loved ones and the Dreyfus affair’s endemic anti-Semitism, insulated by prosperity, or consumed by “the carefully woven fabric” of his garden, he looked increasingly inward.

Despite his failing sight, Monet agreed to produce 12 panels—to be joined together in panoramas—for the French state. Georges Clemenceau, who brokered the deal, visited Giverny in 1925: “The human machine is coming apart at the seams.... His panels are finished and will not be touched again. But it is beyond his powers to separate them from himself.” Monet’s considered pathway was not to the stars—but to an exquisite abyss.

Invalidism, not loss of hearing or sight, was Matisse’s lot. Inspired by the example of the arthritic, undaunted Renoir, whom he had known three decades before, Matisse executed dazzling murals, deceptively simple paper cutouts, even stained-glass windows and multi-colored chasubles for the Chapel of the Rosary, in Vence. “Only the work I did after my illness,” he would say, “is truly myself.”

Matisse’s gifts, not least what he called “the purity of my scissor stroke,” were unique—but his approach need not be. “Must I stop work even if the quality deteriorates?” he asked his daughter, Marguerite, in 1943. “Each age has its own beauty—in any case I still work with interest and pleasure. It’s the only thing I have left.”

People in the Sun, by Edward Hopper.

In Lacayo’s chapter on late Hopper—“taking momentary scenes and making them feel eternal”—the mystery of creation runs deeper. Rooms by the Sea (1951), South Carolina Morning (1955), and People in the Sun (1960) appear to exist beyond time, in part owing to their “aesthetic streamlining.” The paintings, like the man, are terse and enigmatic. Lacayo strikes an exemplary balance between what can be gleaned from and understood about the art and what cannot. The temptation to spell out and apply the wisdom of his examples must have been great. Instead, he lets their varied triumphs speak for themselves.

Nevelson was re-discovered in her 70s, which warrants admiration, though not necessarily inclusion. While she tried other mediums—mirrors, acrylics, aluminum—and has not been recognized or valued as she deserves, her late works were not radical departures.

Among midcentury sculptors, I might have replaced Nevelson with Barbara Hepworth. A mother to triplets, Hepworth did not let the weight of success; the dissolution of her marriage to Ben Nicholson, in 1951; or the death of her eldest son, Paul, in 1953, keep her from further decades of innovation.

At Hepworth’s 70th birthday, in 1973, The Guardian asked about her future plans: “I detest a day of no work, no music, no poetry…. It’s all brewing in my mind, all I want is time.” Yet time, if not her abilities or desire, was limited.

Max Carter is vice-chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s in New York