Early vs. the Last Works of Great Artists: Part 1

They say practice makes perfect, and that’s something I repeat to myself whenever I look at my art and think it’s terrible. Surely da Vinci was a mediocre artist when he was younger, right? No way could Salvador Dali have been a great artist from the moment he picked up a brush.

I wish this was always true, only so that it would give me hope when a piece of art doesn’t turn out well. While researching for this post, I thought I’d be able to compare the earliest works of an artist with their last, in the hopes that it would be inspiring to see how the artist’s skills have progressed over the years. When it comes to most of these iconic artists though, it is pretty clear that they had something in them from a very early age– a certain je ne sais quoi, if I may be pretentious enough to use that phrase.

These artists have always had an innate skill, something sparking in them from early on, that we can now in hindsight say was a clear indication of their future greatness. To be fair, however, we should give practice and dedication its due credit. These artists did not become great overnight– in some cases, they did not achieve greatness within their own lifetime. Their passion for their work is pretty clear in all the works described below, and it is this passion that should give us hope whenever we lose the confidence in our abilities.

1.FRIDA KAHLO

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926), Source

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is the first self-portrait that Frida Kahlo is known to have painted. She created it at the age of 17, following an accident, in an effort to assure her first boyfriend Alejandro that she was still the same person as before. Frida is believed to have referred to this painting as Alejandro’s Botticelli. This was due to many reasons. For one, Alejandro was an admirer of Botticelli’s work. Another possibility is how similar this portrait is to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (the posture, the swirling waves in the background). Frida’s portrait is also remarkable in the way it draws your eyes to her arresting face.

Viva la vida (1954), Source

Viva la vida, Frida Kahlo’s last painting before her death, is ironically a clear celebration of life. The title of the painting, carved into the watermelon at the bottom, means “long live life”. Kahlo was unafraid of death, which was made clearer from her final diary entry in which she wrote: “I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to return.” Why did she use watermelons though? The fruit is significant in Mexican culture, and can be often seen in Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations.

2. LEONARDO DA VINCI

Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve (Source)

Dating back to August 5th, 1473, Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve is the earliest known work of da Vinci. The landscape depicted in this drawing was where he spent some of his childhood.

This drawing requires close examination to appreciate it’s significance. Da Vinci’s close horizontal lines masterfully depict reflections of light as well as the perspective of the valley. On the other hand however, it is clear that he was still in the early ages of his artistic development. Details such as the fortress and the waterfall are believed to have been added later, making them look out of place in the drawing.

Salvator Mundi (1500), Source

Salvator Mundi is a relatively recent discovery. It was restored and exhibited in 2011. While most experts believe it to be an authentic da Vinci, the matter is still debated.

Regardless, it is clear from a single glance that da Vinci’s talents were not waning even in his old age. His signature techniques, such as the chiaroscuro, are obvious and masterfully executed. The refraction of light through the orb in Jesus’s left hand is remarkably done.

3. VINCENT VAN GOGH

The Goat Herd (1862), Source

The Goat Herd is the most interesting work I found in my research. Vincent van Gogh is perhaps the most famous Post-Impressionist the world has known. It is therefore rather jarring– although it should not be surprising– to see that this drawing falls clearly under the style of Realism.

Wheatfield with Crows (July 1890), Source

If not his last painting, Wheatfield with Crows is widely believed to be one of the last works of van Gogh. He used heavy brush strokes on a three-foot canvas to depict one of the wheat fields in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he stayed during his final days. The stormy sky, the lonely landscape and the path that cuts off abruptly are believed to be a reflection of van Gogh’s deeply depressed mindset in the days before his death. While we may never know how true this is, we can appreciate how well this painting conveys and evokes intense emotion.

4. GEORGIA O’KEEFE

Although the Mother of American Modernism is famous for her paintings of flowers, her earlier work can be traced back to her charcoal drawings from 1915.

This is O’Keefe’s first foray into abstract art, where she began to discover her style. These drawings were exhibited at the 291 Gallery in New York in 1916, where the owner Alfred Stieglitz described these works as the “purest, finest, sincerest things”. With simple strokes of charcoal, O’Keefe was able to convey movement and flow. These works have a running theme that would stay with her for the rest of her artistic career– nature.

The Beyond (1972), Source

By 1972, the year in which O’Keefe made The Beyond, her eyesight had begun to fade. This was the last painting she made unassisted. Although a simple painting, the white and blue lines above the dark horizon still manage to capture the beauty with which O’Keefe’s paintings always move us.


Did you enjoy this post? Come back next week when we will be covering other great artists! Is there an artist from history you’d like featured in our posts? Let us know in the comments below.


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