Everyone loves the naivety and immediacy of children’s art, and will often joke that it is indistinguishable from the work of some well-known artists. But what if your child seems to have a genuine talent, what if in fact they appear to be a child prodigy?
The term 'child prodigy' is given to a child who is capable of excelling in at least one area of skill, at a level that is considered to be that of a highly trained adult in that field. Child art prodigies are relatively rare. There have been some well-documented cases throughout the history of art, including Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso (who painted ‘The Picador’ at the age of just 8), but many of these did not display ‘adult’ levels of skill until they were a little older, for example John Everett Millais, who entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 11, and JMW Turner who was elected as a member of the Royal Academy itself at the age of just 15. (John Constable didn't achieve this until he was 52). This was perhaps inevitable at a time when representational art, in the western world at least, was pretty much universal. However with the advent of abstract art, and expressionist art in particular, child prodigies have got ever younger, and 2 - 4 years old appears to be the age at which any self-respecting child art prodigy has their first exhibition these days.
One of the most well-known examples is that of Marla Olmstead, who sold her first painting for $253 at the age of 2. Since then, some of her paintings have been sold for many thousands of dollars. Some art critics think that she has an impressive ability to paint in layers, and fill the canvas instead of painting in one layer and leaving most of the canvas blank (I’m not too sure that this is especially rare - certainly my 3 year old does this, but then maybe it’s because I give him small pieces of paper instead of large canvases!) Marla is from an artistic family, but there is a certain amount of controversy about her work, with some critics suggesting that what she does is no more than most children of her age would achieve if they had some additional coaching.
A more recent case which sprang up in Australia earlier this year, is that of Aelita Andre - another 2 year old toddler whose abstract artwork has been selling for between $240-$1400. Again, there is some debate as to whether it is all her own work (her parents are both artists) though her parents insist that it is. When her work was first selected for exhibition, her parents apparently neglected to tell the gallery owner that the work was by their 2 year old daughter. Perhaps that wasn’t important, after all the work did sell. You can see more of Aelita's work at her website.
Along with all the hype, there have been accusations of child exploitation. I must admit I was tempted to try this the other day when my 3 year old produced a beautiful abstract painting, all swirls of gorgeous colour which any professional artist would have been proud of. For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of passing it off as my own, and selling it for vast sums of money, but for him it was a work in progress, and although I tried to persuade him to stop there and then, the ‘less is more’ argument cut no ice, and I had to watch in distress as he turned it to mud - it was after all his painting. However it hasn’t stopped me using some of my elder son’s drawings on some of the nursery artwork I sell (he takes a fee for this!) They lend a wonderful naïve charm, and he’s happy enough to produce them. I fear neither of us are going to get rich though. These were however one of the catalysts behind the development of Artful Kids. After all, any child’s drawing can be used, and I figured it would be a lovely way for an older sibling to get involved with helping to decorate a younger child’s bedroom.
My own feeling is that the significant thing with these very early ‘prodigies’ is that these are children who are given acrylic paints, large canvases, and the support and encouragement of their artistically trained or educated parents. This by itself would make such children unusual, add this to a little natural talent, some marketing and PR, and hey presto, you have a ‘prodigy’. This is not to belittle any skill that they do have, but child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses - what gets the attention of the media, is the young age of the child more than the quality of the artwork itself, and as with most aspects of normal child development, eventually many of their peers will catch up, or even overtake.
There is a danger that the parents of such children put their own needs first, massaging their egos through reflected glory, rather than considering the effect that all the attention may have on the young child, and what might happen when that attention goes away, as it inevitably will. Having said all that, Marla Olmstead is still painting and selling her work at the age of 9 - but only time will tell if she will be as famous as an adult artist, as she has been as a child. You can judge her work for yourself on her website
You can read another of my posts about Child Art Prodigies here.
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