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Autoretratos de Rembrandt
The aging of the visual apparatus can influence painting in two ways. Physiological aging implies a lowering of visual function that can modify the style of an older painter. Pathological aging of a painter’s eyes produces a severe reduction in the vision of the painter. Nevertheless, the limit between the two is imprecise and the passage from what is physiological to pathological can be as swift and unpredictable as it is in clinical practice.
Aging is essentially a continuous process and that is why it is difficult to set a fixed date for the commencement of old age. It could be a simple ophthalmologic definition, e.g. , the point at which presbyopia ends: when the individual is no longer at all capable of accommodating, he can be considered to be old. That places old age, as far as the eyes are concerned, towards sixty to sixty-five, which is an age that fits in well with generally observed phenomena. Meanwhile, the biological mechanisms of aging continue to function and then, at that point in the process, Art historians have described a pictorial style of painters in old age which, according to them, would be the consequence of the process of aging. The question that is presented to the ophthalmologist is to determine to what extent this style can be linked to the physiological or pathological processes involved in ocular aging.
The medical approach to aging is well-defined and clear-cut because it depends on numerous clinical and experimental observations of the processes involved. These are the processes of anatomical and functional degradation that occur with age. [SEKULER 1982, MARSHALL 1991, WEALE 1992, COHEN 1999].
However, these studies depend almost always on the idea of a threshold of sensation: such include differential thresholds, based on the spatial frequency for shapes; there are also thresholds of luminous contrast and there are thresholds of chromatic sensation. The visual phenomena that are produced at levels frankly supra-liminal escape this investigation. This takes away all of their significance in painting, because painting occurs exactly at these levels that are situated significantly above the sensorial threshold.
Polack already stated: “A visual acuity of 0.5 is quite sufficient for painting.” [POLACK 1906]
Indeed the question is then to know if the clinically observed visual alteration at threshold levels due to age has a significant effect on the production of paintings that are painted at levels high above these thresholds. One third of the painters interviewed admit that their biological aging has influenced their manner of painting [LINDAUER 2003].
However, the actual effect of age-related vision on painting necessitates a more accurate analysis. How can we define “age-related pictorial style”? The pictorial style in old age has been described using psychological, sociological and biological concepts [BALTIMORE 1954, MUNSTERBERG 1983, McKEE 1987, FELDMAN 1992, LINDAUER 2003].
It goes without saying that one cannot make generalizations in this regard and that there is no absolute criterion for data. This is because there are variations determined by the epoch, the style and the personality of different painters. Concrete proof of this is furnished by those artists who start painting at fifty or sixty i.e. relatively late in life. These painters do not paint at all in the same way as their contemporaries, but, to the contrary, they paint in a style that recalls infancy, meaning technical immaturity. This shows well that the style referred to as the “style of old age” or “age-related style” has no real existence. It is however indicative of the adult style of painting from which it derives after having passed through a lengthy path. As Jacques Villon used to say:
“The first fifty years of painting are the hardest.” Rather than try to define a chimerical “style of old age” that is applicable to all artists, it seems more reasonable to research what changes have occurred and what has not changed in the style of a given artist in his personal manner of painting in the course of aging.
The experimental method consists of comparing two analogous paintings done by the same painter but separated by a long interval.
By comparing a series of technical aspects present in each of two works, it is
possible to define what is attributable to aging in the second. We have used
this method in order to compare the two versions of the “Crown of Thorns”
painted by Titian. The first version (Louvre Museum, Paris) was painted when he
was fifty-three. The second (Alte Pinakotek, Munich) was executed when he was
around eighty. It is legitimate to speak of “an adult style” for the first and
an “old-age style” for the second. In this way, one notes that the fine details
in the first version (texture of the coat of mail of the soldier, folds in the
cloth) diminish or disappear in the second. Colorimetric analysis shows a drop
in the levels of saturation and clarity. There is also the replacement of the
cold tints (blue scarf or belt, green or bluish cuirass) by warm tints. These
characteristics are certainly consistent with the known processes of visual
aging, but further comment is not appropriate. This study is only useful for the
painter and the works chosen in this study and any further generalization from
these would not be justified.
Age-related Ocular Pathology and Painting
The pathological degradation of vision related to age is linked to two conditions. These are Cataract and Age-Related Macular Degeneration (ARMD). Before sixty-five, the frequency of cataract in the population is approximately 4% and that of ARMD about 2%. After seventy-five, the numbers change into 45% and 28% respectively [COHEN 1999]. Thus, cataract is almost twice as common as ARMD. It has, however been curable by operation for centuries, while ARMD still escapes our available possibilities for cure in the vast majority of cases. ARMD is therefore less frequent but more serious. The objective evidence for this is shown in painting by deficiency in color and metamorphopsias [SPERDUTO 1983]. ARMD is the principal cause of blindness in old age.
A survey of the history of Art teaches us that numerous artists became partially-sighted or blind in old age. Our first task has been to separate painters suffering from cataract, then those aged painters who already had retinal pathology previously recognized, such as Edgar Degas, Silvestro Lega, Nicholas Grigorescu or Maurice Denis. In the meantime, it must not be forgotten that associations of pathologies are possible and Jean Hélion provided us with a striking example of that. Next, we collected from the literature a group of famous painters aged over eighty and whose visual loss was most likely due to ARMD. Several artists experienced deficiency of color vision as their initial symptom.
Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743), the famous portraitist of Louis XIV painted up to the end of his life, but... “In several of his last portraits, one does not find the variety of tints in the carnations that one has always seen in his other works and that is because his eyes weakened at the end.” [MARIETTE IV , 398]
Francesco Solimena (1657–1747), who was Neapolitan, also had color deficiency, causing him to commit ... “grave errors in coloration, especially in the fleshy color which he painted in a violent yellow and pure black of earth for the shaded parts.” [BLANC 1863]
Johann Gottfried Steffan (1815-1905), highly regarded Swiss landscape painter, was diagnosed with severe dyschromatopsia that made him stop painting [JEDLICKA 938].
For numerous classical artists, the only available data speaks of “the blindness of old age” and ARMD is only a probable hypothesis. We should first mention Carlo Maratta (1625–1713), a Romanesque painter of the Baroque period, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and became practically blind when he was eighty.
Then there was Willem van Mieris (1662-1747), who was a representative of a famous line of artists of the Dutch Golden Century. The illustrious painter from Bologna, Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665–1747) and the etcher Antoine Sergent (1751–1847), so-called “Sergent-Marceau” became blind because of ARMD. The occurrence of ARMD seems also probable for the German artist Ludwig Richter (1803–1884) [VESPER 2001] and for John Tenniel (1828–1914). The latter was the famous illustrator of “Alice in Wonderland”. He had lost his right eye in an accident when he was a young man and became blind when he was ninety. He died when he was ninety-four [ENGEN 1989]. When we come to the artists of more modern times, more precise medical concepts allow us to infer the existence of ARMD with [ a good probability] of being correct or even confirming the existence of that condition.
Philip Wilson Steer (1860–1943) was one of the most outstanding English Impressionist painters. In 1928, when he was sixty-seven, he was diagnosed with early macular degeneration in the retina of his left eye; the series of rather monochromatic watercolors that he painted in 1931 undoubtedly revealed a deficiency of color vision. In 1935, his right eye also became involved. The severity of the condition was very acute initially and involved considerable blurring of color vision; the artist was no longer able to identify the tints of a Chinese painting done in saturated colors that was in his studio. The symptoms became less noticeable with the passage of time, but Steer retained a bilateral central scotoma and was forced, to his considerable chagrin, to stop painting. He made several attempts to take up painting again. For example, in 1938, he painted several seascapes at Borham, but he was not at all satisfied with these.
In his biography, he tells the story of how he threw a painting that he disliked into the sea. This act diluted the colors somewhat; the painting, however, was nevertheless sold later for £ 45 ! [McCOLL 1945, LAUGHTON 1971]
Around 1974, the Austrian Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) experienced a drop in his visual acuity when he was eighty-eight. However, he carried on painting for a little longer and completed the picture called “Theseus and Antiope”, for example, during the following year. On the other hand, it is difficult to appreciate the effect that his ocular condition could have had on his painting because of the blurred and tormented style that characterized his paintings throughout his entire career.
Paul Delvaux (1897 – 1994) - One could call him the painter of poetic surrealism. He reached the age of ninety-seven. His ARMD did not force him to stop painting until he was eighty-five. Meantime, the effect of the retinal lesions on his painting which had suffered the loss of sharpness and vigour seemed certain. In the years that followed, his vision dropped considerably, the alteration in his macula leading him just to that level of reduced central vision that prevented him without forcing from reading and painting [EMMERSON 1985]
Lee Allen (1910-2006) - The name of Lee Allen is not generally known to the vast majority of people, but ophthalmologists cannot be unaware of the seminal role he played in the evolution of ophthalmologic imagery. He was born in Iowa in 1910, where he took up the career of artist. There are pictures and mural decorations to prove that this was so. However, when he reached twenty-five (i.e. in 1935), he turned towards medical illustration at an epoch when paintings of the ocular fundus or of the iridocorneal angle were still the only practical illustrations. He achieved well-merited recognition in this field. He did, however, discover quickly that taking photographs had to supplant drawing and he became then one of the pioneers of ophthalmic photography. He invented, in addition, several instruments and devices.
The following describes the condition that led him into ophthalmologic
painting. In 1988, at seventy-eight, he noticed the first symptoms of his
macular degeneration, when he saw the seedlings of grey spots in front of his
“I knew immediately that it was my responsibility to record them ... They were, however, strictly internal images that could not be photographed so I started to make free-hand drawings of what I, but no one else, could see.”
They allowed fluorescein angiography to be undertaken and laser treatment to be performed from the moment that the symptoms appeared. In general, experience has shown that this is the best time for laser treatment and the one most likely to lead to a favorable prognosis.
Notwithstanding the reality that ARMD affects almost 30% of the population aged seventy-five and even more after that age, there still remain countless individuals who are scarcely touched by the condition and some very elderly painters have continued to work up until the last day of their lives. Many papers have emphasized recently the frequency of a persistent creativity in the course of their “Golden Years” and this is particularly noticeable in the works of certain painters. This concept of creativity in old age is exciting to us, but it is also paradoxical when compared with what we understand of the degradation of biological systems. It makes no logical sense to consider as works of old age the last paintings of deceased artists who died before their sixties, as has been so frequently done for Rubens (1577– 1640), who died at sixty-two and Rembrandt (1606–1669), who died at sixty-three.
One must not confuse a work of an artist’s “Golden Age” and final work with the expression “Older painter.” The term “Older Painter” has primarily a biological significance. On the other hand, the specific features of old age become naturally that much more clearly defined, the older the subjects are. It is very meaningful to study the cut-off at the age of eighty and beyond, because it is then that the physiological and pathological effects are beyond question and it becomes legitimate to speak of the pictorial style of advanced age. It goes without saying that many elderly artists, including those without any known ocular pathology, slow down their activities to an ever increasing extent as the years advance. Some of these cease all artistic activity; others show the sad manifestations and even pathetic signs of senile regression. However, aside from the latter, it is encouraging also to meet numerous painters who continue to work vigorously, some of whom may even demonstrate an unexpected renaissance. This is their veritable late-onset “Golden Age” of creativity. We will now describe the best known of these artists.
Amongst those painters who are over eighty and who continue to be productive, we cite first Giovanni Bellini (1432–1516) whom Albrecht Dürer, in 1506, maintained to be still the best painter in Venice.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) reached almost ninety, which was a remarkable achievement considering the time in which he lived. One has assumed a diminution of his vision in order to take into account the change in style of the frescoes of the Pauline Chapel that he painted between the ages of seventy and seventy-five. It is important, however, to note that Michelangelo was still drawing at eighty-five. He continued to sculpt until the day he died.
Titian (1490?-1576) did not reach the age of a hundred in any account, but he undoubtedly reached eighty-six. We took him as an example previously, because this is the very heart of the problem i.e. the style of aged painters: what portion can one attribute to the hand, to the brain or to the artistic conceptions of the painter during the changes of style that have occurred with age?
Franz Hals (1580–1666) causes us to express the same comments. He possessed from youth an extremely free and fine touch; however, in old age, (for example in the famous pictures of “the Regents”, both male and female in the Museum at Haarlem), that “touch” became totally disorganized and anarchical in appearance. One has spoken of “senile decadence” due to a drop in visual acuity. Fromentin described it as follows: “He lacks everything, including sharpness of sight and precision in his fingers.” [FROMENTIN 1876] However, all of this is mere speculation because there is not a single accurate document relating to the vision or eyes of Franz Hals.
We should also cite Francesco Goya (1746–1828). There is no doubt that he was deaf. However, his late works represent the most enviable example of a painter’s creativity in his “Golden Years”.
Then there is Ingres (1780–1867) who painted
“The Turkish Bath”. This is one of his best-known paintings and he painted it at
Among more modern artists, one can cite Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) who was a fashionably famous portraitist. There were also Walter Sickert (1860–1942), a master British Impressionist along with two eminent figures of expressionism. These were Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Lyonel Feninger (1871-1956). In France, Georges Rouault (1871–1958), Jean Puy (1876-1960) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) worked right up to the end. The American, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), like the painter Foujita (1886-1968) who came from the Japanese Islands, subsequently to become a Parisian, both had the time to see their legends created and Mark Tobey (1890-1976) to assess his role as precursor.
Having reached the age of ninety, various artists continued to paint right up till the end of their lives. As examples, we can cite Ernest Hébert (1817-1908), whose museum in Paris is still in existence. Another was Henri Harpignies (1819-1916) who was a precursor of a participant in and a successor to Impressionism. There was also Van Dongen (1877-1968), whose example demonstrates well that the “dolce vita” favors longevity. Meantime Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) lived long enough to see his abstract style pass out of favor and then again into favor.
Picasso (1881-1973) still retained at ninety the fiery glance that he had in his youthful photos on the Bateau-Lavoir. One could well say that he died with his paintbrush in his hand. Chagall (1887-1985) worked till the he reached ninety-eight with an astonishing vitality. Several artists celebrated their hundredth birthdays while continuing to paint and the most unusual of these was, without a doubt, the famous “Count” Waldeck (1765-1875). In 1869, as explorer, painter and traveler, he exhibited a landscape painting at the salon. The painting was entitled “A Century of Leisure” and he was a hundred and three at the time.
To conclude, I have to
mention the much loved Grandma Moses. She was born in 1860, on the eve of the
American Civil War and she died in 1961. John Kennedy was President at the time
and her pictures incarnated so naïvely the very heart of America. She painted right up to the end of her life which she had from the first
beginnings. I have to say that those beginnings occurred after she was
sixty-seven, when her widowhood and the marriages of her numerous grandchildren
allowed her finally to embark on an artistic career. Her love of painting is
beautifully illustrated by the episode when, in her hospital bed, she seized the
physician’s stethoscope according to the methods she used in the West in the
days of her childhood and would only give it back in exchange for her
paintbrushes. This passion for painting was not to be extinguished as Hokusaï
expressed it as follows, in the twilight of his life:
“I understood the structure of nature when I was seventy-three; by the age of eighty, I shall still have made progress; when I’m ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of creation, at a hundred, I shall arrive at perfection and, at a hundred and ten, every line I will be writing will be that of life itself.” [FOCILLON 1925]
The Eyes of Older Painters