Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2008
Philip Sohm The Artist Grows Old: The Aging of Art and Artists in Italy, 1500–1800 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 224 pp.; 25 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300121230)
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In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in the human body as connected to artistic issues, resulting in studies as diverse as those by Tracey Warr (The Artist’s Body, New York: Phaidon, 2000), Martin Porter (Windows of the Soul: The Art of Physiognomy in European Culture, 1470–1780, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and Amelia Jones (Body Art/Performing the Subject, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). In the related field of body aging issues, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence and the Max Planck International Research Network on Aging recently posted an announcement seeking to appoint a doctoral candidate to study human aging in the context of art history. In this environment, Philip Sohm’s new book The Artist Grows Old: The Aging of Art and Artists in Italy, 1500–1800, is a welcome addition.

Sohm’s study brings to the forefront issues that are regularly debated in contemporary society, and are beginning to be seen as significant in the field of art history as well. Among these topics are forced retirement (and the attitude that people should stop working because they are no longer productive after a certain age), the association of old age and the decline of the physical body in a negative light, a general fear of aging, the drying up of ideas and imagination, the linking of poverty and old age, and the inability to change or insistence on repetition. Sohm reminds us that these problems and concerns are not limited to our own time, but have existed since antiquity, and were remarkable during the Renaissance period. His research examines artists living and working in Italy from roughly 1500 to 1800, encompassing both noted figures like Michelangelo and Titian, and a multitude of lesser-known artists.

The Artist Grows Old consists of seven chapters, and is divided into three sections, each examining a different facet of the aging process and our perception of it. The first two chapters constitute “Psychology” while the middle three, “Making Art in Old Age,” scrutinize more physical aspects. The final two chapters reflect on “Historiography.” Sohm explains the separations carefully, and at the end of the introduction he states his goal to “open new sensibilities and new questions about what it meant to be an old artist and to look at art by an old master” (15). He also mindfully acknowledges the perspective from which he writes, one of gerontophobia, as he approaches old age and confronts age-related issues himself.

Chapter 1, titled “Gerontophobia and the Anxiety of Obsolescence,” begins with a potent reminder that, in contrast to other biases (e.g., concerning race and gender), ageism is a prejudice from which no one can separate herself or himself. This gives the fear of it added weight, or as Sohm phrases it, “Aging poses an existential crisis” (19). The pages following are filled with quotes depicting the decay of the body and the predominantly negative aspects of aging, compiled from a variety of writers (not limited to the Renaissance and Baroque periods). These anecdotes and citations serve to underscore the discussion of the psychological and emotional aspects of aging. Among the most profound is the (likely apocryphal) story of the sixty-four-year-old Ludovico Carracci’s failure to properly foreshorten the foot of an angel, causing him such anguish that he died within days. Other psychological features considered are the double standards of aging, generational struggles, and artists criticized for painting too long. Michelangelo is discussed as the “most exceptional old artist” for overcoming obstacles and adjusting his production as he aged (27).

The following chapter, “Narcissus Grows Old,” positions that legendarily self-absorbed mythological figure as an artist, building upon Leon Battista Alberti’s assignment to Narcissus of the invention of painting, and Ovid’s description of his dissolving as a metaphor for the “dissolution of old age” (39). Sohm inspects previous writers’ discussions of the Narcissus myth in the context of the adage, “Every painter paints himself,” attributed by Angelo Poliziano to Cosimo de’Medici (41). This sets the stage for an evaluation of the artist’s self-imitation in portraiture. The significance of biography in this context is evident, as is the relationship between life and art. The chapter concludes with the story of Cinquecento patron Tomasso Rangone, a doctor obsessed with longevity, who attempts to achieve this with a plan to install portraits of himself all over Venice. He was clearly a believer in the sentiment that “portraits keep the dead alive” (56).

The middle part of the book investigates physical aspects of aging. Chapter 3, “Poussin’s Hands and Titian’s Eyes,” is a straightforward analysis of the ways in which we can visibly see the biological changes that aging artists encountered. Two drawings made by Nicholas Poussin in his sixties evidence his trembling, jittering hand, which Sohm wonderfully characterizes as “a seismographic record of Poussin’s hand in action” (62). Letters and other written accounts help to create a picture of the artist’s failing health and its connection to the art he produced in his later years. Blindness, or at least failing eyesight, faced by artists including Donatello, Michelangelo, and Titian is another of the most problematic physical ailments faced by older artists. Most of the anecdotes Sohm includes are critical (a fact associated with the negative stereotypes of aging, as he notes throughout the book). One contrasting example involves Michelangelo’s 1562 sculpture of a small crucifix in wood. The unusual size and medium of this work was necessitated by his physical weakness in his last years, and reveals his adaptation to the challenge of growing old.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine individual artists, respectively Titian and Pontormo, and how their styles changed as they matured. “Titian Performs Old Age” is one of the finest chapters, outlining this painter’s fashioning of an “old age style.” The question of why Titian would exaggerate his age is an intriguing one, and Sohm answers it in this way: “It seems that Titian used his age as an instrument of manipulation, and more specifically, as a means to enhance his income” (84). While this may seem counterintuitive in a time when old artists were routinely seen as decadent and past their prime, here the author convinces us that Titian, stingy and obsessed with money, makes it work. On the other hand, the assessment in the subsequent chapter of Pontormo’s last project, the frescoes in the choir of San Lorenzo, is less successful. These often-criticized paintings were whitewashed in 1738—an event cited by Sohm as the only time they received “universal applause” (106)—and today we know them only through a series of drawings. Sohm reads the phobic artist’s diary, “a record of his body’s decline” (115), as a mirror of his paintings, describing the Resurrection of the Dead (1554–56) an “intestinal composition” (120). Overall, the consideration of Pontormo’s “old age style” is less convincing than that of Titian in the previous chapter.

Giorgio Vasari wrote, in the introduction of his Lives of the Artists, “The arts, like men themselves, are born, grow up, become old and die.” This analogy is aptly quoted by Sohm at the beginning of chapter 6—“Life Cycles of Art”—reinforcing the central question of his book: what happens to artists who age? This fascinating look at Vasari and his “biological structure of history” allows Sohm to connect ideas of historical rise-and-decline cycles to human life and art. His examination of Mannerism as an “Age of Senility” is similarly alluring (137). This phrase comes from physician/collector/theorist Giulio Mancini, and this section adds to the conversation regarding the role of Mannerism in sixteenth-century Italy.

The Artist Grows Old is a noteworthy book, and I can offer few criticisms of it. The quality of the individual chapters may be slightly uneven: chapter 4 on Titian’s “old age style” and chapter 6 on Vasari’s “ontogenesis” are exceptional, but they are sandwiched around a chapter on Pontormo that is less so. The book is organized well, and the endnotes contain a multitude of relevant bibliographic references for those less familiar with this topic. There are fewer illustrations than we are accustomed to in art history books, but this factor is directly related to the unusual presentation of material; the reproductions do amply illustrate the author’s key points. The references to Pietà images created by both Michelaneglo and Titian for their own tombs are tantalizing, and this reader would have liked to read a more substantial discussion of that connection. Sohm thoughtfully concludes his introduction with a mention of general aspects of art and old age that he does not consider. These topics will no doubt be taken up by future scholars similarly interested in this emerging field of inquiry.

Alison C. Fleming
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Visual Studies, Winston-Salem State University

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