What Constable’s Apocalypse Can Tell Us About the Mysteries of the “Late Style”


Smiles admits that there is sometimes “independently attested evidence of an age-related debility affecting an artist’s output.” Painting and sculpture both require physical exertion, so, he says, “the problems associated with old age – arthritic or rheumatic conditions, difficulty standing, hand tremors, loss of sight – can affect how [artists] work. ”For Smiles, understanding how artists cope with disability remains a subject of intense interest.

Yet having rejected the idea, as he puts it, of ” Late Style ‘, with a capital L and S’, how does he explain the fact that so many important artists have produced great works over the course of of their last years? Easy, he replies. “I’m happy with the notion of late styles, in the plural.

Of course, he explains, professional artists working in old age “do things that may seem very different from what they did in their youth. But, most of the time, it’s not a sudden breakup marked by an epiphany: “Oh my God, I’m going to die, I better do something drastic. Rather, it is simply the development of trends that have developed throughout their careers.

Lyles agrees. In fact, she tells me, the idea that Constable’s art has been transformed by the death of his wife is a cliché: becomes more torturous for him, and the manipulation becomes looser. ‘ In fact, I think it was going in that direction anyway.

As for the classic model of gerontology – that our creative powers peak in middle age before declining inexorably – Smiles says, “Yes, that’s probably true for most of humanity. But, he points out, “there are people who can run marathons in their 90s, and they are not considered routine human beings.” The same is true, he argues, for artists who continue to do exceptional things to the end.

“Normally, we think of the audacity of young artists who break the codes, who go ahead, invent new languages ​​of expression. So if you can have a sudden surge at the end of your creative life, near death, and the same creative vigor that you had as a younger artist, that’s a very heartwarming idea.

Late Constable is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000; royalacademy.org.uk), from October 30. The Late Works of JMW Turner by Sam Smiles (Yale) is out now


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