Smiles admits that sometimes there is “independently verified evidence of age-related weaknesses affecting an artist’s production”. Both painting and sculpture require physical exertion. “Age problems – arthritic or rheumatic diseases, difficulty standing, hand tremors, loss of vision – can affect how it is [artists] Work. “Understanding how artists deal with frailty is still a topic of great interest to Smiles.
But how does he explain, after rejecting what he calls the “late style” idea with a capital L and S, that so many great artists have created great works in their final years? Easy, he replies. “I am satisfied with the notion of late styles, plural.”
Of course, he explains, “professional artists who work in old age do things that may look very different from what they did when they were young. But mostly it’s not a sudden rupture marked by an epiphany: “Oh God, I’m going to die, I better do something radical.” Rather, it is simply the development of tendencies that have built up over the course of their careers. “
Lyles agrees. In fact, she tells me, the idea that Constable’s art was changed by the death of his wife is a cliché: “It’s the classic line that is trodden off when someone talks about Constable’s change in style and mood: ‘Oh, his wife die, also life ‘becomes more agonizing for him and the handling becomes looser.’ Actually, I think it was going in that direction anyway. “
Regarding the classic model of gerontology – that our creative power reaches its peak in middle age before it inexorably declines – Smiles says: “Yes, that is probably right for most people.” But there are people who can run marathons at 90 and they are not considered normal people. The same applies to artists who create the extraordinary to the bitter end.
“You usually think of the boldness of young artists breaking rules, advancing, inventing new expressive languages. So if at the end of your creative life you can experience a sudden upswing that is close to death and have the same creative power as you were when you were a young artist, this is a very comforting idea. “
Late Constable is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000; royalacademy.org.uk), from October 30th. The Late Works of JMW Turner by Sam Smiles (Yale) is out now