The swan-song phenomenon

32

Dear Artist,

I remember after visiting Giverny for the first time in my 20s, reporting back to my Dad that Claude Monet had painted his most innovative paintings in the last stages of life. “Your best work is ahead of you,” I said. He cracked a grin from his easel, the place where he always was. Monet, his cataracts raging, then surgically corrected, and stooped and limited in his mobility with age, was peaking in his 70s and 80s, his brush fastened to a long stick, pioneering colour work, scumble work, scale work, immersion and abstraction from his garden-nestled studio.

Parallels IV, 1974 Ink on paper 5.75 x 4.5 inches by Tony Urquhart (b. 1934)

Parallels IV, 1974
Ink on paper
5.75 x 4.5 inches
by Tony Urquhart (b. 1934)

This late-stage culmination of experience, inspiration and creative agility has been characterized as both a bolt of brilliance and a last, primordial push of productivity. Scholars have, in recent decades given it a name — “the swan-song phenomenon” — after studying over 1,900 works by 172 classical composers and noticing a creative ramping up at the end of life. This burst has also shown a trend of producing the artist’s best — late-Strauss, late-Turner, late-Goethe, late-Beethoven (his 9th Symphony, an exaltation of the soul, composed while deaf, three years before his death at 56,) late-Tintoretto, late-Braque and Matisse, who, left bedbound at 72 after surgery for abdominal cancer, discovered and pioneered cutouts and collage and advanced abstraction with a stick and some glue, for another 12 years. Whether it’s compulsion, drive, desire, emotional access to understanding concepts of one’s own mortality, goals of posterity or something to prove, making a bigger statement or nothing to lose, age, if we are afforded the privilege, can bring with it a luxury and freedom to travel, unburdened, into new creative territories.

Blue Haze, 2008 Oil on canvas on masonite 30 in x 24 inches by Tony Urquhart

Blue Haze, 2008
Oil on canvas on masonite
30 x 24 inches
by Tony Urquhart

If critics and scholars have written a modern narrative about artists and aging — about reaching for transcendent final works and maybe even cementing a legacy, then we all might, perhaps take note and paint forward, regardless of any perceived declines, towards a last, genius move. We can rid ourselves of any limiting beliefs about peaking in middle age or losing our faculties, or if, like me, you’re worrying, abstractly and naggingly about eventual failing eyesight or an unsteady hand, you can throw that notion out, too. “A lot of the studies that were done on creativity are quite outdated,” says Canadian author Emily Urquhart. “They look at creativity as a product as opposed to an act. ‘Create’ is a verb. And it’s not something you can quantify.” The answer then, is to keep going. Just keep going. Live and work as many days as you are given in this new, unhindered pasture. Strive for the bolder idea, the riskier creative tack. Shock yourself with the unexpected. More than anything, just make. “The old,” wrote Aristophanes in 400 BCE, “are in a second childhood.”

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but… I’m increasingly obsessed by the need to render what I experience, and I’m praying that I’ll have a few more good years left to me….” (Claude Monet)

A Strange Darkness #4, 2017 Hand-coloured etching, 1/1 unique 12 in x 9 inches by Tony Urquhart

A Strange Darkness #4, 2017
Hand-coloured etching, 1/1 unique
12 x 9 inches
by Tony Urquhart

Esoterica: Earlier this month, someone sent me a book, which I opened hastily, discarding the envelope. With no note or message inscribed, I found myself not knowing who sent it to me. I read it, experiencing this mystery friend’s thoughtfulness on each page. The Age of Creativity by Emily Urquhart is a memoir exploring the unspoken intimacy of artistic dynasties and notions of creativity and aging, memory and the art spirit. The author, the daughter of Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart and Canadian abstractionist Tony Urquhart, who had recently been diagnosed with dementia, set out to meditate on the idea of “creative prime” — and whether creativity declines with age or, as she has come to discover through research and being with her Dad, our best works can be summoned and flare as a last achievement before death. Thank you to the person who sent me this book. “Always I’m feeling, ‘You’re never going to work again,’” wrote Lauren Bacall. “That’s going to happen one day, but I hope I’m not alive.”

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“Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long time.” (Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber)


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32 Comments

  1. At 88 and still swinging my brushes, this really speaks to me. Good message from Sara and I really like the final two quotes from Becall and Auber.

  2. Jeff Heintzman on

    I had the good fortune to be a student of Tony Urquhart at UWO at the end of the 60’s. He was a very nice fellow and very inspiring as well- I still remember the funky little boxes and constructions he used to make. Definitely had his own vision.

  3. I am doing my best and largest work at age 73. I have time and surprisingly interesting ideas some based on refining previous work and some ideas that are opening up new work. It is very exciting.

  4. Aren’t we so lucky to have our art in these troubling days! Thank you, Sara, so much, for these words of wisdom each week. It has taken me 32 years, at my second career, to finally feel comfortable at the easel, and to express ‘from the heart’! Please keep these arriving each week for inspiration!

  5. Chuck Yeager, who we lost a few weeks ago, held this philosophy throughout his life. It took him through the sound barrier. He said it all in his book, “Press on”, a great read for today’s disturbed times. My own brush has stayed dry for ten years, and I am almost 81. There is no good reason to be that way. I live in hope of more to come. I miss your Dad, Sara, but what a wonderful job you do for us.

  6. So inspiring. Macular degeneration and painful fibromyalgia and arthritis has almost made me stop painting. This article is so inspiring and uplifting! Gives seniors an, ‘inspiring push and motivation!’
    Many thanks!

  7. My friend J.Allison Robichaud, recently turned 89, is still out there painting en plein air, every day, come rain or come shine, in snow or ice. He’s recently lost his much younger wife and it speaks to the spirit of art that his new works are more compelling than ever & his still life brilliantly conceived & dashing. He’s also written several books on his self-taught art.
    Giverny is indeed inspiring in so many ways – a shrine… Renoir also strapped on his brushes in his later years. I take much pleasure in your writings and have followed your Dad ‘s inspiring letters for years. Thank you, Sara.

  8. Visited Monet’s Garden three years ago, painted Pastels from there, I’m 82 and very busy, sold a pastel in a Halifax gallery this week, “Lisbon Tram”, only happiest when I have a new painting on my easel.

  9. Patricia Baird Godvin on

    Thank you Sara. On YouTube ,there is a short clip, the only one known to exist, of Monet in his late years painting in his garden. Certain species in nature demonstrate a similar phenomenon. In the last year of a Lodgepole tree’s life it may produce thousands and thousands of cones which cover the branches in visual excess. In science they call this “panic reproduction.” I prefer the term Swan Song. It gives us all something to look forward to.

  10. Mª Teresa Dominguez Adell on

    Tengo 84 años y sigo pintando y luchando cada día. Me mantiene viva e impide que me deprima. ¡No tengo tiempo!
    muchísimas gracias por tus cartas, nos haces un bien enorme.

  11. What an excellent approach to living life in general, even if one is not an artist. I am so in tune with this approach. I remember reading some place how Cézanne lamented near the end of his life that he was just getting started. This is how I feel and after 40 years or so of painting, and 11 of those full time, I am hopeful that my best work is still ahead of me. The thing is, I don’t know if it is but I definitely won’t know if I don’t keep at it and keep on pushing at the edges of my own creative process. I am speculating on at least another 20 years of painting. At least. But there are no guarantees. So, I am going to keep painting as if each painting is my last, the very last and the only one that matters. This way I will be less likely to hold back. I will take risks. I will dig the deepest I know how. At least, this is my hope. Thanks as always for the inspiration Sara.

  12. A shot in the arm in these days of chaos and cancer over COVID-19! This past year work has slowed, several paintings always in progress, and taking time to think, breathe, relax and work full steam. Fear still comes in the wee hours of morning, but creative energy flows into me along with the sun’s rising. Thank you, Sara!

  13. Thank you, Sara, for this wonderful, provocative essay! It’s especially meaningful for me as I turned 80 just before the end of 2020.

    As the essay says, the words “create” and “make” are verbs; they require action on my part if they are to become manifest as finished paintings. The awful year of Covid did a number on my desire to work in the studio. Happily, with the beginning of 2021, I have a new sense of momentum. I’m ready and eager again. Truth to tell, though the finished painting most often brings me a sense of completion, I’m generally one or two paintings ahead in my mind. I’ve always been in love with the process of making. May it always be so.

    My swan song period is happening right now and I need to hurry!

  14. I will be 83 on inauguration day and am still painting daily and am experimenting with a new medium and new process.
    I love learning something new. I am so grateful to be an artist. Painting has kept me sane while being self quarantined.
    Thank you Sara for helping us all to be inspired.

  15. Thank you Sara for this letter. I have been painting steadily for over forty years, and , as some one said above: .I’m happiest when I have a new painting on the easel. After the death of my husband, I didn’t paint for six months. The day I put a new canvas up, and opened my paints, was the first day of the rest of my life. We are created to create our lives, and we must use the gifts God gave us. Whatever they are. Oh, BTW , thank you for showcasing my painting today. That is one of the series that I did after my husband died two years ago. The biblical series. I just saw it. !

  16. Yes, am still painting at 83…still influenced by others, however, but every third or fourth piece I do is my own…and that makes it all fun…
    Your article is inspiring…thank you.
    Jo Robinson

  17. There is definitely a belief in the arts that once age hits, we are done. I recall being the young one in a room full of mature artists who would look at artwork that they did years before, and say they wish they could still do that. Even in those days of my needing to learn so much, I silently told myself that I will NEVER say that. I will look at older works and see them for what they are, work from an earlier time, maybe admire or cringe, who knows. But NEVER wish I was still back there, and appreciate where I am at any age. Love this letter, Sara, Peesh is right, Dad would be/is so proud!

  18. Thank you Sarah for this wisdom! I’m in my late 70’s, still painting, teaching, and enjoying it to the Max! I feel this is a lesson for us all. Yes, you have it! Do it! Simply begin and do it NOW! I too feel like I’m on to something…I see things, faster, better, and can get in”Art Mode” …where anything is possible…. almost immeditely….! Let the Force be with us!

  19. I’m 74 and a retired photojournalist but I’ve had an easel or drawing paper in front of me since I was a kid. Recently I’ve started having more fun experimenting with abstract painting. Back in my younger days I spent time in a karate dojo. There was a young lady there who was a champion fighter and I’ve always remembered a board over her locker that read, “Be stronger than your excuses.”

  20. Thank you for this reminder. Now that I am retired I no longer feel rushed so can work in a more thoughtful way. Because my work is selling so slowly, I have decided not to try to make quite so much, but to work more carefully. Working more deliberately has led to different concepts and images. It is a different feel and look from my more expressionist work, but i do feel like I am finally getting the hang of it.

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http://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/The-23rd-Psalm-2019-24-x-30-wpcf_225x300.jpgThe 23rd Psalm, 2019
30 x 24 inches

Featured Artist

I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and that experience gave me a love of nature and the seasons and a deep belief in personal independence, as well as a love of experimentation. These have been the foundations of my work as a painter. I believe that learning in art or any subject is lifelong, and that the most important lessons we learn are through our personal interests and experimentation. After my husband’s death in 2018, I visited Israel the next year, and was inspired by the amazing landscape colors, and especially the old city of Jerusalem, with its crumbling walls, and its deep religious importance. I found my way out of grief by painting the Eight Gates of the old city.

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