What is greatness? That is the implicit question in Richard Lacayo’s new book, Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph. The explicit question is, of course, how artists change as they get older. Lacayo rejects any universal answer to the latter. He’s in favor of “case-by-case examination” of six artists—Titian, Francisco de Goya, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper, and Louise Nevelson—instead of a single over-rationalizing thesis. But “however different their later lives may have been, in one way they were the same. They kept working, long enough to express their final insights into life and art through the great last unfolding of their gifts.” Individuality, hard work, maturation: these are the underlying principles around which Lacayo crafts detailed portraits of these great artists and their works.
We enter each life in medias res: Lacayo places the work of each artist within his respective psychological, historical, and political contexts. For the aged Titian, that puts us in a plague-wracked Venice; for Nevelson, at the moment of her first major group exhibition at MOMA. Hopper distilled his work further and further into what its essence was all along—light—and Goya’s “Black Paintings,” in the midst of his illness and isolation, are famously pessimistic about human nature. Then Lacayo plunges backward into the artists’ early lives and via biography leads us to their deaths.
Besides hard work, the artists do have a few things in common. For example, all six deteriorated physically in their old age, often inviting questions from detractors about the change in their style. Were Monet’s gauzy water lilies the natural result of his cataract-inflected vision? Was Titian’s later, more expressionistic style part and parcel with his trembling hands? Lacayo argues that claims such as these are unfair or irrelevant. Titian continued to produce his long-standing, more polished style well into his old age, and his studio assistants also created the “shakier” style of work speculated to be the result of his deterioration. As for Monet, Lacayo acknowledges that his later paint handling, “loose and wavering,” could well have been “an unintended byproduct of his disintegrating eyesight.” But the author mentions this with indifference; Monet, who we learn had no qualms about destroying work that he didn’t like, kept these paintings. The Abstract Expressionists who later adopted the traits of his brushwork certainly didn’t care whether Monet’s innovation came from his physical constraints or his intellect.
Another commonality is that four of the six artists spent much of their later years working on some sort of enclosure or building. Goya’s Quinta del Sordo, on the walls of which he painted his Black Paintings, is one example; another is Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France. Lacayo takes us on an evocative and panoramic tour of the former. Just a few of the phrases describing Goya’s country house convey the artist’s dark psychological state: the murals portray humanity as “repulsive, coarse, and stupid,” one work “a hopeless tableaux of eternal violence” and another where the “moronic verges into the demonic.” Of the Vence chapel, Lacayo provides not just an account but a critique. The devotional illustrations on the walls of the sunny and modern chapel, cast in green, yellow, and blue light by Mattise’s stained glass, “represent a failure on the part of Matisse, the lifelong artist of the pleasure principle, to develop a sufficient language for suffering.” One might argue that these enclosures represent an effort by the aged artists to create a cocoon for themselves, something inhabitable, tangible, and all-encompassing that might cushion them from the world as they became old and jaded. In any case, Lacayo does not shy away from honesty in assessing these late works.
There are moments, too, when psychology and personality overwhelm the art. Much of the chapter on Louise Nevelson tracks her struggle for money, recognition, and, ultimately, the gratification of her ego. She is undoubtedly characterized by the hardworking ethos that Lacayo has described: an artist works “not when the spirit moves you; you go every day and work—just plain work, physical work,” Nevelson said. It is revealing that her story ends with another quote of hers: “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show. To me, that is living.” It is, however, her abandonment of her child, her bombastic clothing, and her habits—in the humorous words of a friend—as a “predatory heterosexual” that demand nearly as much scrutiny as her work. Still, Lacayo gives Nevelson’s wood, steel, and plexiglass its due, and we must assume that he is an honest portraitist and not one distracted by irrelevant details. Nevelson is not the only one whom Lacayo does not flatter: Hopper’s chapter is like a grueling first session of couples’ therapy and Monet seems, in Lacayo’s telling, to be constantly complaining.
Lacayo’s narrative descriptions of artwork are on the whole delightful. They are, however, peppered with chronic rhetorical questioning, which can come across as an unwillingness on the part of Lacayo to stand behind his own analysis. Lacayo begins one sentence on a Monet painting with, “Is it too much to suppose . . .” leaving the reader to wonder if it really is too much to suppose what follows. (That is, for the record, a speculation that one of his paintings contains a “frank recognition of death.” Maybe it does, but it’s certainly not obvious.) Despite this, the speculative analyses add up to an enjoyable series of reflections on the mature artists.
Overall, Lacayo is a pleasant guide across centuries and countries, showing us in equal depth art and artist. Each artist is different, and no too-perfect conclusion is shoehorned into any of the six, but the book finishes on a cohesive note—the celebration of individual genius in its maturity, the kind of genius able to transcend successive generations. Lacayo makes the case that it is the work of maturity, rather than youthful impulse, that is truly powerful and lasting. Monet’s water-lily murals remain his most iconic ambassadors; Matisse’s playful paper cuts distilled his Fauvism into its logical conclusion; Hopper and his essentially American paintings became ever more laconic. These are artists who need no introduction, and yet Lacayo has provided a very worthwhile one by starting at their ends.