“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”
There is always something special and mysterious about the last paintings of the artists who made their names in the world of art. However there is sometimes debate about what work represents an artist’s last. So the following should be considered among the last works made by each of them.
Some of these paintings were the last made before the artist’s death. Others were the last because of degenerative diseases. In addition, some of these works are unfinished.
Claude Monet: Water Lilies Murals, 1926
Claude Monet’s Water Lilies is beloved around the world, a radiant example of French Impressionism and the glory found in nature. But their path from the artist’s yard to museum walls was one paved with obstacles, perfectionism—and a lot of gardening. Monet specified that when he died he wanted to be buried like “a local man,” adding ““Above all, remember I want neither flowers nor wreaths. Those are vain honors. It would be a sacrilege to plunder the flowers of my garden for an occasion such as this.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat Riding with death, 1988
Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual”, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while his poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle. His last work certainly has a morbid quality about it that evokes a sense of an ending, and Basquiat painted it shortly before his own death from a heroin overdose in 1988.
Pablo Picasso’s Last Self-Portrait, 1972
His last well known self-portriat was done a little less than a year before his death, entitled Self Portrait Facing Death. Pablo Picasso worked up until the day he died at age 91; literally painting till 3 am on Sunday, April 8th, which was just hours before his death.
Vincent Van Gogh: Tree Roots (1890)
Van Gogh spent the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town just north of Paris, after he left an asylum at Saint-Rémy in May 1890. Tree Roots is considered by some to be his last painting before his death late July 1890. The painting is an example of the double-square canvases that he employed in his last landscapes.
Salvador Dali: The Swallow’s Tail, 1983
This is one of the last paintings that Dalí crafted with oil. He did it in the castle of Púbol and in this applied knowledge expressed by the mathematician René Thom in his book Structural Stability and Morphogenesis. Dalí uses the form of the cello, to which he attributes symbolic functions of sentiment rather than any musical presence.In this last Dalinian period, the cello is the main subject matter, always with a painful mission; in other canvases it appears attacked by bedside tables. It is rather like a wounded ego and, in this case, it participates in the representation of a swallow’s tail, the most determinant element, due to its poetic content, of all the descriptions and graphic art that he had produced in the catastrophe theory.
Gustav Klimt: The Bride, 1918
Gustav Klimt never finished his last painting, titled The Bride (1917/1918), but this uncompleted work gives us a fascinating insight into the artist’s technique as well as his inner desires. The painting depicts naked women, because Klimt died before he could dress them, but the fact that he first painted his subjects naked before dressing them in clothes reveals the sexual obsession that lay beneath the surface of Klimt’s works.
Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida, Watermelons, 1954
Most all Kahlo books agree that this is Frida’s last painting and that 8 days before her death she added the inscription “Viva la Vida – Coyoacán 1954 Mexico”. At the end of her life, Frida was heavily dependent on injections of Demerol and Morphine which weaken her and left her in a “semi-sleep” state. This seriously affected the quality of her work. The painting is a still life with watermelons, a fruit that is a popular symbol in the Mexican day of the dead (Dia de los Muertos). Watermelons are also a frequent feature in Mexican art. Viva La Vida means “long live life” in Spanish.
Keith Haring: Unfinished painting, 1990
Keith Haring, famous for his playful, street-inspired paintings, died from complications related to AIDS in 1990, age 31. This painting, “Unfinished Painting,” was painted in 1989, and is a self-portrait. Haring knew that he would never have the time to complete all the work that he wanted to do due to his illness.
Edouard Manet: A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882
This painting was Manet’s last major work. It represents the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls and cabarets of Paris, the Folies-Bergère. The venue opened in 1869 and its atmosphere was described as “unmixed joy”. In contrast, the barmaid in Manet’s representation is detached and marooned behind the bar. The Folies-Bergère was also notorious as a place to pick up prostitutes. The writer Guy de Maupassant described the barmaids as “vendors of drink and of love”. Manet knew the place well. He made a number of preparatory sketches there but the final work was painted in his studio. He set up a bar and asked one of the barmaids, Suzon, to serve as his model. The painting was first exhibited in 1882, at the annual fine arts exhibition in Paris, the Salon. Visitors and critics found the composition unsettling. The inaccuracy of the barmaid’s reflection, shifted too far to the right, has continued to spark much debate.
Francis Bacon: Study of a Bull, 1991
Study of a Bull was completed in 1991 just months before the artist, Francis Bacon, died as a result of chronic asthma. Having spent its life in a very private collection in London, the painting has never been seen publicly. It was discovered when an art historian named Martin Harrison was researching Bacon’s work for the publication of the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné.
Raphael: The Transfiguration, 1520
His last work was The Transfiguration (1520). It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, the later Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), and it can now be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City.