The Old Men Who Made Paint Itself Expressive

It is rare for great artists to keep producing well into old age. Two biographies of Titian and Cézanne reveal masters who saved their best until last

Art Books

Cezanne: ”Self-Portrait” (1895) 

The corollary of the artistic gift is diminution. For every Beethoven, pushing at the boundaries with his late quartets, there is a cluster of Wordsworths, treading water by middle age. In painting there are only a handful of artists who not only defied the years but saved the best until last, among them Titian and Cézanne.

Titian lived to 86 (sometimes, apocryphally, he was thought to be 100) but he didn’t even start his greatest series of works-the five Ovidian “Poesie” for Philip II which includes the National Gallery’s Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon-until he was in his mid-sixties. He was still working on The Flaying of Marsyas, one of Western art’s greatest and most distressing paintings, at his death. Cézanne died aged 67 having found a radical style and remained fully focused on the problems of translating three-dimensional reality as he worried away at the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the Provençal peak he never stopped trying to conquer in paint. 

The superb new biographies by Sheila Hale and Alex Danchev have more in common than just the creative longevity of the painters. They approach their subjects as part of a wider framework: in Hale’s detailed and sage account (remarkably the first full biography in English since 1877) Titian is shown as an element of the cultural cityscape of Venice, while Danchev portrays Cézanne as a literary construct-as a great reader himself, an intimate of Zola and someone who fascinated writers from Flaubert and Beckett to E.E. Cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

Titian spent almost his entire working life in Venice, moving there in his teens and leaving Italy only twice, for visits to Augsburg to meet the Habsburg emperors Charles V and Philip II. Otherwise he rarely strayed further from Venice than Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino whose respective dukes were his other major patrons. Despite being a homebody, Titian, as Hale points out, was nevertheless the only Renaissance artist to paint a pope, an emperor, a sultan, and a king (Paul III, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and Francis I of France). 

Titian too had rich literary connections: his oldest friend was the poet-pornographer-satirist Pietro Aretino-who wrote that “Titian is I and I am Titian”-and he was close to both Pietro Bembo and Ariosto. The painter himself was only half-educated and never learned to read Latin; it was his friends who polished what learning he had and whose influence can be traced in the sophistication of his mythological paintings in particular.

 Unlike Cézanne, however, Titian was motivated as much by money as by art. He was neither unduly political nor religious,  but rather pragmatic. The majority of his letters are about business and the main concern of the last part of his life was his attempt to win church benefices for his son Pomponio. While he was a rich man-150 commissions for the Habsburg court alone saw to that-he always wanted more. Philip II’s ambassador put it down to age, reporting that “Titian, being old, is somewhat covetous” but it was more likely to have been the tardiness of the payments for work completed that made the elderly artist so cautious.

In front of a canvas, though, the businessman disappeared. As the years passed the sweet, Giorgionesque style of his youth (The Three Ages of Man and Sacred and Profane Love) gave way to greater tonal depth and visible brushwork in the service of emotional resonance. As Vasari wrote, his paintings were “executed with broad and bold strokes and smudges, so that from nearby nothing can be seen whereas from a distance they appear perfect”. A 17th-century writer characterised the late style differently, likening it to being “violently raped”. What both recognised in their own ways was that, for the first time in art, the paint itself had become an expressive medium.

In this Cézanne was the Venetian’s direct descendant. He may not have shared Titian’s humanism but paint fascinated him. As he wrote: “Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian knew at once how to merge their whole personality in all that flesh that they had before their eyes, in a sublime compromise, to animate it with their passion and with the likeness, to glorify their dreams or their sadness. They did it exactly. I can’t do that.” He sought instead to transmit the physical presence of an object, whether it be an apple or a mountain. 

It was, suggests Alex Danchev in his subtle and broad-based biography, Cézanne’s single-mindedness in this aim that so fascinated his contemporaries. Public acceptance came late-he was 56 before he held his first one-man show-but fascination (often mixed with incomprehension and ribaldry) came early. It was his artistic seriousness rather than his rough table manners and picaresque southern accent that endeared him to his fellow painters. His work was collected by Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Gauguin long before anyone else would touch it. 

As he aged and developed his method of constructing pictures using slanted, parallel taches (patches) rather than by modelling Cézanne’s pursuit of form never became any easier. In frustration he was once witnessed throwing a rock through a particularly recalcitrant canvas and he raged at less committed artists: “All my compatriots are arseholes beside me.” 

Like Hale, Danchev gives a rounded view of both man and painter. Both use wide reading and judicious scholarship to minimise the psychological suppositions that so often mar biographies of artists. They know that sometimes paintings can be read as proof only of themselves and not of the artist’s state of mind. And late Cézanne-pictures such as The Bathers series-is all about pictorial harmony and structure. As the painter and theorist Maurice Denis said: “I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and concise reason for his admiration.” Danchev, though, gets pretty close.