How Creativity Changes as We Age

As Turner lay dying, he asked to see sunlight. Renoir demanded a pencil. For many artists, the final chapter is the most creative

The Walrus/Wikimedia Commons/Met Open Access

Despite spending most of my childhood drawing, I didn’t grow up to become an artist. I studied art history instead. I loved art, but I loved the artists more. It was their stories that I burned for. In an oral presentation on Michelangelo’s sculptures, during the third year of my art history degree, I mused over the artist’s romantic life. I speculated that he had been in love with his sculptures, a Pygmalion analysis. Also, his best sculptures were of men, so I was curious about his sexuality. I’d chosen slides from the art history library to illustrate my thesis, including the muscular twist of the Rebellious Slave; the smooth-bodied, hedonistic, and confident Bacchus; and, of course, David, with his youthful defiance, his tousled hair, and the details of his body so fine you could see his veins through his skin. He was beautiful, heartbreakingly so. How could the sculptor not have loved him? The lights were dimmed, my professor stood behind the slide projector so that her eyes were obscured by the machine’s bright lights, but I could see her mouth, which had tightened into a firm line.

“I don’t think so,” she said, signalling the end of my presentation. “More interpretation of the work, less speculation on the artist’s personal life, please.”

We were meant to be post-artist at the close of the twentieth century, instructed to understand the work as its own text, as standing apart from its maker. For a time, I complied. The artwork drew me in, and it fed me, but this method of understanding art left me hungry for more of the artist, unsated.

Over the winter of 2017, I read the biographies of great artists, sometimes from back to front, sometimes only the final chapters. It was a road map of sorts, a necessary outline for a blankness that existed in art and literature surrounding old age. As writer and editor Diana Athill, approaching ninety, wrote, “There is not much on record about falling away.” Author Roger Angell, writing at ninety, said old age could feel like blankness, invisibility. He would speak at a dinner party and hear silence in return. “Hello? Didn’t I just say something?” he mused. “Have I left the room?”

Reading their lives backward, I experienced the deaths of Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Krasner, Neel, O’Keeffe, and Turner all in one season, because the artist always died in the final pages. (The biographer has the good fortune of knowing how she will tie her writing project together.) Paul Cézanne collapsed during a rainstorm while live-painting outdoors, sur le motif, lying unconscious for hours before being carried home on a laundry cart. He rallied, occasionally, over the next few days, finishing a portrait, adding some small brushes of colour to a painting near his bed, Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, and died in the early morning.

My father had always been an outlier in his talent and in his unswerving, dogged focus on art; still, in the lastingness of his creativity, he might be just like everyone else.

J. M. W. Turner asked to see the sun, one last time, as he lay dying under an overcast sky. He was rewarded on the morning of his death, when the sun broke through the clouds and briefly illuminated his room. He died before noon. He communicated from the afterlife in the body of a teenage medium, the daughter of an ironworks foreman. She embodied the hunched creep of his later years, his furrowed brow. She enacted the motion of his long brushstrokes as she mimed the act of washing-in a canvas, readying it for a new painting, and she mimicked his technique of using a cloth to soften the colours on the canvas, blurring the painted weather and industrial steam. In doing this, she gave away the artistic secrets of Turner’s later career.

In her twenties, suffering from depression, twentieth-century American artist Alice Neel tried repeatedly to kill herself—tied a stocking around her neck, put her head in a gas oven—but she lived to eighty-four and died of cancer, surrounded by her family in the New York City apartment that doubled as her studio.

Pierre-August Renoir was bedridden and went into pulmonary arrest hours after asking for a pencil with which to sketch a nearby vase. His gathered family couldn’t find one, according to a letter written by his son, Jean. But how hard did they try? I wondered. Surely a pencil could be proffered without much trouble in the house of a dying artist. Of course, in place of Les Colletes, Renoir’s estate in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, I imagined the Loyalist home in Colborne, Ontario, where my parents lived, substituting familiar territory, my known life, as one does when reading the stories of others.

As each artist approached the end, the urge to create did not wane. It may have grown faint, necessarily, but the impulse to make art remained. They rose from their deathbeds to paint, asked for their tools in delirium. People who loved them bent low over their prone bodies, whispering of success, assuring them that people were still looking at the art they’d created over their lifetimes. Even Turner, unable to paint, still yearned for the light that shone through his late, great works.

We tend not to associate aging with creative bursts. Historically, critics saw advancements by elderly artists as peculiar. According to twentieth-century art historian Kenneth Clark, the work of older artists conveyed a feeling of “transcendental pessimism,” best illustrated in the weary lined eyes and pouched cheeks of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. Claude Monet’s contemporaries decried his Water Lilies series as a symptom of cataracts and advanced age. The paintings were dismissed as “the work of an old man” in Comoedia, France’s most important daily arts journal at the time. Fellow painter André Lhote described them as “artistic suicide.” In Turner’s final two decades, as he painted the weather, both natural and manmade, in his increasingly abstract landscapes, he found himself brutalized by peers, a kind of aesthetic elder abuse. Turner was “without hope,” wrote John Ruskin. Another, less tactful critic said that Turner’s late work was the product of “senile decrepitude.”

“Now it’s recognized that there was not a falling off of creative powers but that their creative powers have changed,” says Ross King, author of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. “They were deliberately working in different ways.” One brushstroke from Monet—a silhouette of a petal at dusk—holds all the shadow, richness, and texture of a life as a painter. But this is something that people often overlook. Today, it’s doubtful that most gallery patrons know that Monet was in his seventies when he created the most famous paintings in his Water Lilies series. Turner’s late creations are now widely recognized as works of incomparable brilliance. The same could be said of art from Cézanne, Titian, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt.

Lately, well-wishers have been describing the continued art practice of my father, Tony Urquhart, as “remarkable.” I sensed that his longevity and work ethic delighted them, the idea of the old artist at his easel, but I also intuited a deeper emotional response, that they were surprised by his continued creativity, and that “remarkable” was code for peculiar or strange. As we stood before my father’s early painting The Earth Returns to Life, considering the progress of time, I wondered when and why our society had been conditioned to see creativity and aging as antagonistic. My father had always been an outlier in his talent and in his unswerving, dogged focus on art; still, in the lastingness of his creativity, he might be just like everyone else.

There is a term, “successful aging,” that has come to define a certain type of senior, one who accomplishes astonishing tasks in the final gasp of their life. These are people like the ninety-six-year-old who ran the New York City Marathon or the 101-year-old who released her first collection of poems. It began as a movement to counter ageism—See what we can accomplish at any age!—but celebrating the exceptional suggests that the regular human narrative is somehow a failure. The privilege of growing old can be as much luck as circumstance. A marginalized childhood, malnutrition, and stress can all shape the later years of life. There is also the simple, bewildering fact that some bodies are able to deal with hardships and tragedies better than others. In old age, there are many roads diverging, with no real control over which path anyone might end up on.

There are exciting new thoughts on the story of being old, but we’re all fallible to age. It isn’t something to overcome, to rage against and win over. A study of senior artists in Canada found that 73 percent, or 29,000, of the 40,000 artists polled were at a moderate or high health risk. Even the seemingly impermeable older artists featured in art history textbooks faced the realities of aging. Monet suffered from cataracts; Renoir from painful arthritis; Edgar Degas was blind near the end; and Lee Krasner, who had waited all her career to see her work celebrated at The Museum of Modern Art, died unexpectedly, in her seventies, before her one-woman show was mounted. She knew it was happening, her biographer wrote. Whether this was enough, we can’t know. There was Saloua Choucair, the Lebanese artist whose fame came in her eighties and nineties and who was alive but too deep into dementia to witness her soaring late success.

Each of these artists struggled in some way, as we all do or will, with the progress of time. Yet Renoir found new ways to hold his brush in the tight grip of his folded hands, and Monet saw through his cataracts—or maybe he painted from memory, or based on light—but, in the end, who better than an artist to innovate through struggle? Krasner painted until she couldn’t anymore, and after that, she spent time in the company of her works, communing with her creativity in a new way. In an essay by Patricia Utermohlen on her late husband’s final works, she wrote that William Utermohlen’s self-portraits—arresting portrayals of his descent into dementia—were a way of addressing his fears and exploring his altered self, and that this necessitated a new form, new tools, even a new style. “The great talent remains,” she wrote. “But the method changes.”

At eighty-five, Georgia O’Keeffe’s eyesight began to dim, and she was unable to continue painting. Her last unassisted oil painting, The Beyond, was completed in 1972 and described by her biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp as “portentous and tragic . . . O’Keeffe’s view of her immediate future.”

The Beyond’s foreground was dark and finite, but the horizon line and azure sky were infinite and promising. It was light-filled, limitless. Or maybe there was no message within this work, just our competing interpretations, our need to see something past the canvas, on the horizon, so mysteriously and beautifully captured by O’Keeffe’s hand. It was darker than her similar reductionist paintings of the previous decade but rich in its darkness and hinting at its artistic precursors. Had O’Keeffe known this would be her final unassisted painting? Struggling with her vision, she likely knew some change was afoot. But do we ever really know when we do anything for the last time?

I no longer sing lullabies to my daughter, and neither of us remembers when we stopped the ritual. Grasping back into my memory, I’m at a loss to find the end point, the finale of that important life stage. Why did I stop? The answer, of course, is that life is progress. What I know is that we began reading novels together before bed, every night, no matter how late it was, no matter where we were. It was an extension of the earlier time, and it was equally precious. O’Keeffe moved from painting to sculpture—giving us works like Abstraction, a twelve-foot structure of clean lines and fiddlehead curves. In a photograph taken by Bruce Weber in 1984, the artist posed with her sculpture. She wore a broad-brimmed hat that circled her head like a dark halo. She was old, her skin papery and thin, and the way she held her body was both angular and austere. She leaned on a curve of her sculpture, an elegant long hand laid purposefully across her lap. Limitation necessarily inspires. Psychologist Robert Kastenbaum, whose scholarly work on death and dying redefined what we know about this stage of life, has written that creativity “may be the aging individual’s most profound response to the limits and uncertainties of existence.” Facing resistance—a stone wall, an impassable rush of water, a jagged-edged cliff—it is human nature to invent new pathways: a tunnel, a boat, a bridge. The most creative among us find their way, as O’Keeffe found hers.

We interpret the artist by looking at her work, but our inferences are more a mirror of ourselves. The Beyond was construed by many as meaningful for its place in the artist’s oeuvre, its title a tragic nod to her end. But this is ageist and ableist, and O’Keeffe didn’t stop there. After switching mediums, she continued creating work for another fourteen years. Maybe the title hinted at a new frontier—one waiting to be conquered and mastered, just past the dark horizon.

Excerpted from The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me by Emily Urquhart. Copyright © 2020 Emily Urquhart. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved.

Emily Urquhart
Emily Urquhart is a writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Azure, and Hakai Magazine. Her newest book is The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me (Anansi, 2020).