In 2016, street photographer Len Speier unveiled his first-ever solo show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, a prominent New York City gallery. It was a major accomplishment; the curatorial process had been long and laborious, and Speier and gallerist Daniel Cooney had spent hundreds of hours sorting through the artist’s catalog of more than 1000 potential images.
Throughout the planning stages, Cooney says, Speier was enthusiastic, enterprising, and up for a challenge. And when television reporters asked to interview him live on camera, he didn’t hesitate--he woke up before the crack of dawn and arrived at the gallery promptly at 6:45 in the morning, ready for questions. The surprising part? At the time, he was 88 years old.
Cooney has worked with several artists who found success later in life, and he says they all share two things: energy and drive. Photographer Vivian Cherry was 97 years old when she first exhibited at his gallery; and while planning that show, Cooney says, she regularly asked him about organizing a second exhibition. When he reminded her that they needed to focus on the project at hand, she replied, “I don’t have much time!” “She didn’t say it in a sad way,” Cooney tells us. “She was just saying, ‘Come on, mister!’”
Finding success as an artist late in life is not nearly as unusual as we think it is. David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago has spent time studying the “cycles” of artistic creativity, and says that though on one end of the spectrum, there are those like Pablo Picasso, who create their most valuable work in their teens and early twenties, there are others, like Paul Cézanne, who refine their work over time. Picasso made masterpieces at 26. Cézanne made his at 67.
One crucial difference between those Galenson calls the “Young Geniuses” and those he calls the “Old Masters” is their approach. The former develop concepts, execute them quickly, and then move on to something else--while the latter aren’t always certain about the outcome they want. They experiment, using trial and error, which means that perfecting their techniques can take years of practice. Both Speier and Cherry photographed New York City for decades, creating vast and continuous bodies of work rather than short, isolated series. Cézanne painted the same portraits over and over again before he decided what worked and what didn’t.
A series of studies from the Dutch economist Philip Hans Franses could provide further understanding of the relationship between age and success in the arts. Although popular culture tends to celebrate young art prodigies, Franses’ research found that, on average, our most beloved writers, composers, and painters peak at age 42. That is to say that middle age is the time when they produced their most popular or highly valued (i.e. expensive) works.
Another interesting aspect of the Franses data? The extremely wide range of ages represented in the study: the youngest of the artists he studied was the modernist composer Charles Ives, who created his most popular work at just seventeen. On the opposite side of the scale was famed painter Edward Hopper, who sold his most expensive painting at age 83.
There are other famous examples of artists finding success at an older age; Henri Rousseau worked as a toll collector in Paris before hitting his stride in the art world and painting into his mid-sixties. It wasn’t until the final year of his life that he painted The Dream. Katsushika Hokusai made his most famous work, including Great Wave, in his seventies. One of the most famous examples from art history is Louise Bourgeois, who created Maman in her late seventies. “I am a long-distance runner,” she once said. “It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”
The reasons artists find success later in life can widely vary. Artists ranging from Paul Gauguin to Jeff Koons worked in other fields, like stockbroking and finance, before settling into the visual arts--and according to research, these experiences might have helped them in the long-run. By dabbling in different fields, people who generalize rather than specialize develop a broad, unique, and often valuable skill set: Vincent van Gogh was a teacher, a bookseller, and a pastor before he turned to art in his late 30s. Speier was a lawyer for much of his life.
With age, some artists develop a stronger sense of self--and a willingness to share their work with others. “Vivian and Len were both confident that the work was good,” Cooney explains. “They wanted to share their work with everyone. Older artists are consistently like that; they don’t have the trepidation or nerves you sometimes see in younger artists. They’re at ease with themselves.”
Recent studies suggest that success in the sciences has little to do with age and more to do with factors like luck and persistence, and similar theories might hold for the arts as well. There are people who find stardom right off the bat, but there are others who aren’t afraid to keep trying over time. When critics told Cézanne he didn’t have a talent for drawing, he went to the Louvre and sketched as much as he possibly could. He continued to submit his work for exhibitions, even after numerous rejections, until finally, he became the “father of modern art.”
Following a stroke, Speier had difficulty walking, but he didn’t stop taking pictures. Instead, he took the bus. He hopped on near his house, and he photographed the street and his fellow passengers as he made his way through the city. He and Cherry were just as much long-distance runners as Cézanne and Bourgeois. They kept extensive archives, and they didn’t throw anything away. They worked up until their deaths--both ended up passing away within a year of their exhibitions at Daniel Cooney Fine Art.
“So many of the artists in the world go their whole lives without real recognition,” Cooney explains. “I think that for artists like Cherry and Speier, seeing it happen within their lifetime was a total gift.” And in many ways, it was a gift to him too. When it comes to older artists, that creative fire still burns as brightly as it did when they first started--but it also comes with a rock-solid foundation, forged over decades. “They are what they are,” the gallerist tells us. “They have their identity. They’re artists in their heart.”