"Still, I'm learning," commented Michelangelo at age 87.
Art historian and medical pathologist Thomas Dormandy has written "Old Masters: Great Artists in Old Age" (Hambledon and London), a penetrating and overwhelmingly uplifting study of major artists who accomplished majestic works of painting, sculpture, and drawing later in life.
The author invites you to ponder many unsolvable mysteries. How could Goya have infused his art with so much life while coping with deafness in his 70s? What enabled Renoir to execute paintings of youthful feminine health and beauty that dazzle through the ages? The roll call of masters dances across Dormandy's pages: Kandinsky, Titian, Hals, Turner, Munch, and Hokusai.
The temptation must have been great for Dormandy to seek a common thread, a single overarching theory to explain how so many famed artists could summon such mastery later in life. It is very much to the author's credit that this temptation is refused, though Dormandy does tentatively offer some thoughtful speculations in his closing pages.
What appears to strongly resonate across the lives of these artists inhabiting various eras and cultures is an unfailing curiosity about the power of art to reflect some essential truth about the self and the world.
This curiosity about art assumed various guises. Some artists addressed their loss of physical prowess by changing their medium. When painters like Degas found themselves without the ability to masterfully wield a brush, they turned to sculpture. In turn, the sculptor Rodin turned to drawing.
A wheelchair-bound Matisse traded in his paint and canvas for scissors and paper, creating cutouts of childlike simplicity that are sophisticated in design.
The landscapist Claude kept painting as his sole channel of expression, but age brought with it an increased preoccupation with depicting people inhabiting idyllic paradises. The sculptor Aristide Maillol completed his career creating female nudes that were different from his celebrations of femininity molded in his youth only in their complexity.
Dormandy is also quick to cite examples where economic or political constraints encountered in old age were also overcome. The expressionist painter Emil Nolde triumphed over constant Nazi harassment, for instance.
Dormandy is a great joy to read because he lovingly invites you into the life of each artist, chronicling with his fine eye for detail.
Though only 20 reproductions of the art Dormandy discusses are included, prose this exquisitely colorful and nuanced creates the illusion of having walked through a world-class museum with a storyteller who knew the most intimate secrets of every artist represented.
Like the artists it illuminates, this book will defy the ravages of time.