Art is Forever Young

The seven ages of an artist

Whether artists hit their stride right after college or make their best work in their final years, the creative career seldom has a conventional trajectory. We asked seven leading artists aged 24 to 80 what they haved learned from a life in art

Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Physalis, 1912 (detail
Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Physalis, 1912 (detail): what might Schiele have produced had he lived longer than 28 years? Photograph: Leopold Museum

The Japanese master Hokusai was one day found weeping at his workbench because he believed he had not yet learned enough about drawing. He was 80. On his deathbed, eight years later, he cried out, “If heaven would only grant me 10 more years, I might still become a great artist.” We may consider Hokusai a genius from childhood but he thought nothing he produced before the age of 70 was any good. How long does it take to become an artist?

A whole lifetime is the stock answer (unless you’re Julian Schnabel, who compared himself to Picasso in his 20s). But what if that life is cut short? Raphael, Watteau and Van Gogh were dead at 37. Modigliani was 35, Géricault 33 and Seurat was carried off by a virulent illness at 31. We may regret every masterpiece they did not live to paint, but the stupendous works they left show that age and achievement do not keep pace. Schiele was dead at 28; if Gauguin had died at the same age we would never have heard of him: The Ham, arguably his first masterpiece, was painted at 40.

There are other late starters (Van Gogh didn’t paint until his mid-20s) but these days the pressure is on young artists to come up with a singular look while they are still in college. Ever since Charles Saatchi began trawling degree shows in the 1980s, students have had to produce selling statements alongside their work, never mind that it may still be inchoate.

The Ham, 1889, by Gauguin.
Gauguin painted The Ham in 1889, when he was 40. Photograph: The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Laure Prouvost argues that early success may be dangerous. Get picked up in your 20s and you may founder later because “you haven’t tried hard enough, or got lost enough yet”.

Assuming you aren’t netted at this stage (or any other), a day job will have to carry you through. Richard Serra was a removal man; Ed Kienholz sold vacuum cleaners; Susan Hiller here reveals an early stint as a receptionist at a Skoda factory. The trick is to find work that doesn’t exhaust the body, or fill the head so that there is no room for thinking.

Perhaps there is some freedom in making art without any sense of its prospects to begin with, for as soon as people start liking it, there is a compulsion to keep doing the same thing to survive. I have heard artists in their 30s and 40s speak of the intense difficulty of getting new ideas accepted by galleries or potential buyers. And just around this time a family may fill the horizon.

The old adage that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, has never applied to artists, nearly all of whom teach at some stage to feed their dependants. I remember my father, James Cumming, literally running upstairs to his easel after a day’s teaching to paint right through the night; money and time were so tight.

The age of 50 brings the realisation that you’re in it now for the long haul, with all the hardship, labour and joy. “Everyone has talent at 25,” Degas sardonically observed, “the difficulty is to have it still at 50.” At 60, there is the knowledge that more projects may now be abandoned than made. At 70, like Hokusai, some artists begin to think they are at last getting somewhere even if the spotlight has eluded them. Louise Bourgeois, still sculpting weeks before her death at 98, said that the lack of interest in her art up to this point at least left her to work beautifully undisturbed.

Henri Matisse at home, France - 21 May 1945
Henri Matisse devised a cut-out technique from his wheelchair when he could no longer paint. Photograph: LIDO/SIPA/REX

The most radical art of all is sometimes the very last. Late Titian, late Picasso, late Matisse – in a wheelchair, devising the cut-out technique when he could no longer paint – seem so much wilder and more vigorous in their 80s than in youth. But a sense of urgency can dominate at any age. George Shaw, at 48, feels time’s winged chariot drawing near, and the drive to work increasing exponentially. Paula Rego, in her 80s, says working makes one forget the miseries of old age. And perhaps it is true that artists stay younger for longer, as Hiller suggests; I recall solemn research to this effect published in Nature (sculptors, incidentally, apparently live longer than painters).

The artists interviewed here are all exceptional in that they have the recognition, freedom and financial security that millions of their colleagues will never enjoy. Yet they share the same preoccupations: how to raise families while working, what to make, how to find time, how to keep one’s spirit, vision and integrity intact. And even, in Richard Deacon’s case, whether and when to retire.

For artists do not have to go on for ever. Marcel Duchamp spent most of the last 30 years of his life teaching and playing chess. Generally it is rare for artists to give up for good, certain that they have made everything they could; the mind lifts the hand for ever, my father used to say. And for most artists, this is not a profession but a calling. The great Cuban-born painter Carmen Herrera, who turned 100 this year, and did not sell a work until she was 89, gets up every morning to paint. Her advice to the young is not to hurry through their 20s, and never to be intimidated by anything. “You don’t decide to be an artist,” she has said, “art gets inside of you. It’s like falling in love.”