Painting can help you live longer

Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery

T. is the only artist I’ve known who’s ever retired. Most of them paint their way forward into extreme old age. And T. couldn’t stay retired-in the last year she’s picked up her brushes again, done a solo show, and sold a few pieces.

“Why would I stop doing what I love?” asked pastellist Diane Leifheit in response to Transcending Popular Culture.

Three Machines, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy de Young Museum

Old age often produces great work

By modern standards, Rembrandt didn’t live long, but 63 beat his contemporary odds by a long shot. His last self-portrait, painted the year of his death, is both technically confident and psychologically insightful.

Norman Mailer finished his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, right before his death at the age of 84. It was both very long and very good, and was the first volume of an intended trilogy.

The superstar of working into extreme old age was American pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, who died on Christmas Day 2021 at the age of 101. Earlier that year, he recorded a conversation with curator Karen Wilkin and Lois Dodd, about working into old age.

“It has never ceased to thrill and amaze me,” Thiebaud said, “the magic of what happens when you put one bit of paint next to another. “I wake up every morning and paint. I’ll be damned but I just can’t stop.”

Lois Dodd, of course, we claim as Maine’s own favorite daughter. She’ll celebrate her 96th birthday this year, as will her fellow modernist Alex Katz.

Equilibrium, 2012, Carmen Herrera, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Carmen Herrera didn’t have her first solo show until she was in her mid-50s, although she’d sold her first work while in her teens. She was almost 90 when she was ‘discovered’ by the New York art scene. She lived until age 106.

A list of major artists who’ve reached their centenary is too long to reprint here, but mention must be made of Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. She was a hardscrabble farmer’s wife who didn’t start painting until her mid-70s. She died at age 101, having carved out a second career that was far more successful than her first one.

“I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered,” she said.

Hoosick Falls in Winter, 1944, Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, courtesy Phillips Collection

Science says

The anecdotal evidence I’ve related above is supported by science. British researchers found that people over 50 who regularly engaged in the arts were 31% less likely to die during a 14-year follow-up than peers with no art in their lives. A World Health Organization review found that both passive engagement with the arts (like visiting a museum) and active participation (making art or music) had health benefits.

Why don’t more people engage in art, then? We start devaluing it in school, where it’s the first thing cut, despite manifest evidence of its health and intellectual benefits. It’s no wonder that by middle age, most of us are more likely to be watching TV than picking up a brush or singing in a choir.

But as Grandma Moses demonstrated, it’s never too late to start painting. Or singing, playing the harmonium, or taking up interpretive dance. Why not give yourself a health boost, and have fun at the same time?

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, urban painting in Austin, TX, June and September workshops aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. Why not register today?

Am I part of the problem?

Beauchamp Point in Autumn, oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m no fan of the Guardian, but this recent (unsigned) piece is one more argument about a well-known problem in the art world. Women’s art sells at a shocking 10-to-1 markdown from men’s work—"for every £1 a male artist earns for his work, a woman earns a mere 10p.” That should come as no surprise to readers of this blog; I’ve written about it here, here and here, among other places.

Women artists earn less than their male counterparts; they are collected less by institutions, and—this is something that surprised me—if they sign their work, the value goes down.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

Meanwhile, in blind tests, viewers can’t tell the gender of painters by the work alone. My pal Chrissy Pahucki was so taken by that question that she replicated the blind study using plein air paintings by artists she knew. Her results came in about the same as the original study; i.e., the same as guessing.

Gender disparity is something I track as I watched the prizes being given in juried shows. So how did I fare as a juror at Adirondack Plein Air? I’d promised organizer Sandra Hildreth I’d set my own biases aside. With few exceptions I did not know who the work was by. (Although artists are told to not sign their work in advance, that’s difficult to enforce.)

Of the nine prizes I gave, overall, three were to women. The top three all went to men. Ouch. That’s hardly a large-enough sample to convict myself over, but it is cause for reflection.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985.

I stress the formal elements of design over mood and evocativeness. (I scarcely know how one would judge those subjective values.) Perhaps that gave the edge to men. Does that mean that quantification, classification, and structure are somehow male thinking? That’s an argument that troglodytes on both sides of the culture wars might happily embrace. I reject it myself; I have the brain that God gave me, and he made me female.

This concept of a male-female divide is in some ways stronger than it was in the benighted 1950s and 1960s. Back then, nobody went on about some inner standard of male and female that our outer bodies might be in misalignment with. In fact, nobody spent a great deal of time analyzing our minds unless there was something starkly wrong with us.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, approx. 24X36, watercolor on Yupo, available

I may not have been allowed to wear trousers to school until the seventh grade, but there was no pink-and-blue differentiation in kids’ clothing in my youth. Outside of school, we all wore the same mud-stained shorts and shirts. We had the same toys. We played sandlot baseball together.

At the same time, artists like Lois Dodd struggled mightily against a system that denigrated her work in comparison to her peers. While I wish I could stuff Barbie-culture back in the hole it came from, I never want to go back to the days of ignoring women artists.

That ship has started to turn. “Even though prices for work by female artists are starting from a far lower base, they are currently rising 29% faster than for art by men,” said the Guardian. “For canny investors who want a bargain and a higher return, it’s a no-brainer.”