Is there such a thing as “late style”?

The concept of a “late style”—where the artist relaxes, contemplates death, no longer cares what people think, is comfortable to neglect the market, shares the wisdom of old age, and produces remarkable art for people of future generations—began with Beethoven. To many contemporaries Beethoven’s late string quarters were just noise, the music of a man who had gone deaf; but to others, and particularly in subsequent years, they were as a late flowering of genius. But whether there is really such a thing as “late style” was discussed today at Frieze Masters.

The “big three” who show “late style” are Beethoven, Titian, and Rembrandt. The two painters are both thought to have loosened up considerably in old age, applying paint thickly and freely and producing paintings of remarkable psychological depth.  They both did, but Emilie Gordenker, director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, told the story of how the very last self portrait of Rembrandt in her gallery has long been regarded as a supreme article of his “late style,” showing all that he had experienced in life, including bankruptcy and neglect. Nobody said that about a self-portrait in the National Gallery—until cleaning showed that it too was painted in the last year of his life. In other words “late style” is something we, the observers, project onto the work of an artist.

American artists asked to vote on which painters had a “late style” voted Titian top (83%) followed by Cezanne, Constable, Degas, De Kooning, and Goya (all on 75%). But Xavier Bray , chief curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery and an expert on Spanish art, debunked Goya’s “late style” by showing a picture that Goya painted at the end of his life, when he was painting the black paintings that are thought to be his “late style,” that shows Goya himself carefully painted in bright colours receiving a benediction.  He remained a devout Catholic until the end of his life, continued to paint in different styles, and persisted in being keen on money, painting whatever would pay him well.

The market might well be responsible in part for the creation of the idea of “late style” because it sells paintings—paintings that might have been seen as “doddery “ before the concept of “late style” was created. Plus when an artist dies paintings will be left in “his” (and I write “his” because there is no female artist who is through to have a “late style,” although someone in the audience brought up Rose Wylie—and I thought of Alice Neel) studio, perhaps unfinished, and the galleries want to sell them; so the concept of a special “late style” might be a good way to sell an unfinished painting.

Sam Styles, a professor of art history, seems to have made a career out of writing about “late style” and yet in his book Late Style and its Discontents debunks the idea. What he particularly objects to is modern critics looking at the last works of painters and thinking that the dead painter had in his final years foreseen future movements in art. Turner is the best example of this with people not only thinking he anticipated the Impressionists but also the Abstract Expressionists. Smiles told the (surely apocryphal) story of Rothko walking around a Turner exhibition and saying “This guy Turner has learnt a lot from me.”

Just as history tells us more about the time that it is written than the time that it is written about so the fashion for “late style” tells us about our age. We Baby Boomers, many of us atheist art lovers, naturally are attracted by the idea of a late flowering with death held off and our lives culminating in wisdom and beauty.

Alastair Sooke, an art critic who chaired the talk, arrived thinking that “late style” was a useful and real concept but said towards the end that “late style” was clearly a rotten idea. But Tim Marlow, a critic in the audience, said no: “Manet and the Abstract Expressionist revered Turner. There is something very real there.”

And perhaps the best example comes from Matisse, who was forced by illness to abandon painting and took to making his famous paper cut outs—which are filled with colour, energy, and life and seem to be the works of a young man. Sooke showed some of the cut outs accompanied by a laughable picture of Matisse (“a complete egotist and one of the most horrible people who lived”) wearing a white coat and forensically painting a naked woman and then a picture of his much older wearing a pirate cap and with a pigeon on his shoulder. He and his art had changed.

I came away thinking that there are certainly many examples of artists (not only painters but writers, composers, and others) who adopt a different style or subject matter late in life but that we should avoid seeing this as a comprehensive entity called “late style.”



2 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as “late style”?

  1. The styles of two artists I like very much, Ron Kitaj and Howard Hodgkin, changed dramatically with age (as was clear from their Tate retrospectives). Their later works were far less satisfying to me; which I attributed to the ill effects of old age (theirs not mine). (Monets late paintings when he was grappling with eye disease similarly came apart at the seams, but they are still electrifying.)

    I was looking very close up at a late Gauguin a few weeks ago because I thought the “finish“ on his late paintings at the Grand Palais exhibition seemed very perfunctory, and wanted to check. Maybe his illness explains the falling off.

    If late style entails “loosening up, applying paint thickly and freely and producing paintings of remarkable psychological depth,“ then surely Lucien Freud qualifies as an example.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. But did Freud apply his paint any thicker in his last years? I don’t think he did, and, although I admire his paintings greatly. I thought that he rather went off in his final few years. One of the factors affecting “late Style” is obviously physical and mental decay, often perhaps making the work weaker–but nobody talks much about what might be “normal.” Another example of “ascertainment bias.”


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