In 1928, when poet William Butler Yeats was in his 60s, he wrote "Sailing to Byzantium," in which he laments, An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick. Despite his harsh characterization of old age, Yeats himself continued to write late into his life.
Yeats' older years as a writer, and those of many other creative artists, are the subjects of Nicholas Delbanco's latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. Delbanco examines artists who either maintained or advanced their work past the age of 70 — from Claude Monet, to Giuseppe Verdi, to Georgia O'Keeffe.
"It's not the sort of book I would've been interested in writing, much less reading, 30 or 40 years ago," Delbanco, 68, tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "But for obvious reasons, the business of old age is of incremental interest to me."
French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession.
"Over the last 20-plus years of his life, he painted almost exclusively the natural world," says Delbanco. "He had made a lot of money, and quite a name for himself in his youth and mostly middle age. But he withdrew — and yet painted almost obsessively up until his death."
This inward concentration — Monet's drive to create art for his own private pleasure — says Delbanco, is characteristic of many artists in their old age. But even though older artists are perhaps freer to make their own artistic choices, their creativity is also constrained by their limited mobility and health.
"Those impressionists in winter," Delbanco says, "the ones who went out and stood in the snow and the ice with a little charcoal brazier to keep them warm and stayed there for hours. That's not something that an octogenarian would do."
In Monet's case, it was his failing eyesight that posed the greatest threat to his work. "He became more or less legally blind as we would describe it now," Delbanco says. "So Monet compensated for, or focused on, the visible world in very different ways in his older age." Today, the works Monet created in his last years at Giverny are regarded as masterpieces.
Delbanco also turned to his former professor, novelist John Updike, to shed light on how age affects the creative process. According to Delbanco, Updike was no stranger to the questions of aging and artistry.
"He was always disparaging his own energy, his own enthusiasm, his own ability," Delbanco says. "I never knew how far his tongue was in his cheek, but he was declaring himself finished in his late 20s, which was when I first met him."
Updike's joking self-deprecation highlights the tension between perceptions of old age and youth. While old age is often associated with wisdom and experience, young artists are commonly seen as brilliant artists, capable of innovation and new perspectives. This question is the crux of Delbanco's exploration.
"If you're a baseball player or a ballerina, you kind of know that your career is over by the age of 40, and you certainly wouldn't begin it at that point. That's to a degree true of musicians, mathematicians also," Delbanco explains. "But in terms of the subject matter, and on the face of it, there's no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn't grow with age. But it happened so relatively rarely that I thought I'd puzzle it out in this book."