Death is what artists fixate on—it’s the threshold of posterity. The painter who hits his or her stride only around thirty, as have many modern artists, needs a longish life to accomplish the work. But if an artist dies at an advanced age, some of the clarifying process that death applies to the shape of the career may already have begun. It’s possible to outlive one’s mature style and pass into a “late” style; or to outlive the generation with whom one made one’s mark; or to outlive the revolutionary impact of one’s work; or simply to outlive one’s fame or popularity. The biographer who wants to make sense of a long artistic life may have to trace more than one decline, as well as the rise of more than one reputation.

Sonia Delaunay’s long life, the subject of Axel Madsen’s new biography, was a curiously doubled one.

 

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