"It's really hard for young artists. You're an adult at 18, but for a painter it takes longer. You really don't get it together until 35 or 45."
|La Blanchisseuse by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,
1884-1888, oil on canvas.
Some research and reading I've been doing in the last month on historical artists has got me thinking about an artist's lifespan, both in terms of their actual years on earth and in the progression of their ability and output over the course of their career. Unlike professional athletes, dancers, or to some extent singers, painters do not have an expiration date on their talent. They can essentially develop their eye, understanding, and ability their whole life, and many would even say that a lifetime is not long enough to master the craft.
It's interesting to look at some of the great artists in history and notice the variation in their respective timelines. There were many who died prematurely–Caravaggio at 39, Van Gogh at 37, and Toulouse-Lautrec at 37 to name a few–but because of the prolificness and sense of urgency that accompanied their life and work, they left behind an oeuvre that outlived them in recognition and relevance. In terms of those who lived long lives, there were artists who produced seminal work consistently over the course of their careers–such as Michelangelo who died at 89, Picasso who died at 92, and Wyeth who died at 92–and then others whose most influential or memorable paintings were created toward the end of their life, such as Rembrandt, Goya, or Homer.
Artists' legacies are determined in retrospect, while looking at the context of what came before them, what was happening in their own time, and how they affected what came after them. And in terms of progression, some would say that an early rise and peak is better than a slow rise and fall. An artist like Èdouard Vuillard, for example–who came to prominence during the birth of the Modernist movement–has been said to have reached his zenith at 30 and lived too long. This is said because he started out experimental but ended more traditional and realistic, which was the complete opposite of what was happening in the avant-garde scene around him. By the end of his life, he was seen as regressive, but it is now clear that he was actually ahead of his time.
For many painters finding a signature voice, style, and subject matter takes a lifetime, and they don't usually start feeling comfortable in their own skin until mid-life. In New York magazine's "How To Make It in the Art World" issue, artist Alex Katz states, "It's really hard for young artists. You're an adult at 18, but for a painter it takes longer. You really don't get it together until 35 or 45."
What do you think? Does artistic maturity take a lifetime to develop? Is it better to gradually progress toward the best work of your life or to peak young? Leave a comment and let us know.