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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Famous Teen Painters

Pablo Picasso Self-portrait, 1896, age fifteen.

Filippino Lippi Self-portrait,
ca. 1475-85, age ca. eighteen.
It seems that one of the fun things for teenagers to do these days is to hold up their cell phones and take a "selfie." Actually, photographers have been doing that for years (with cameras, not telephones). Likewise, to pretty much same extent, painters and other artists have been doing self-portraits for far longer than that (with neither cameras nor telephones). Now, thanks to modern technology, virtually anyone with an opposing thumb can "do" a self-portrait. I have no idea who painted the first self-portrait, though most of the earliest surviving efforts seem to date from the late Medieval period. The trend, along with portraits in general, appears to have "caught fire" during the Renaissance and has been burning brightly ever since. It seems that few artists can resist the urge.
Sandro Botticelli, Self-portrait, ca. 1460s,
(date uncertain, but obviously painted during his teen years).
Quite possibly the oldest surviving teenage self-portrait.
George Frederic Watts,
1834, age seventeen.
Very often it seems, as I research various artist, I run into comments on their having been quite talented even as children and teens. In fact, it happens so often one would almost come away thinking that all artists were child prodigies. Though early childhood and adolescent interests in art almost go without saying in artists' biographies and obituaries, take it from an old art instructor from way back, who has seen both talented teens and true prodigies down through the years, they are not one and the same. In large part a talented interest in art is the result of a keen imagination, early exposure to drawing, and most importantly, an above normal IQ (which often translates to more lucrative pursuits later on). The true prodigy, on the other hand, displays an early infatuation with all things creative and artistic, often to the exclusion of all else. As for early exposure, the kid will take care of that on their own, even if it's drawing pictures with a stick in the mud. The keen imagination of the prodigy is likely to be termed by parents as being overactive. The exceptional IQ is likewise important, but not entirely necessary.
Raphael de Sanzio, Self-portrait, 1499, age sixteen (he barely looks thirteen).
Georgia O'Keefe, yearbook photo,
1907, age nineteen.
Down through art history these two elements come together as a means of separating true prodigies and those artist who simply tend to develop art talent a little sooner than expected. I've often claimed that portraiture, that is, mastering the anatomy of any face from any angle under any light and circumstances, is the most demanding form of art known to man; and I'm including the literary, performing, and musical arts in this as well (with the possible exception of tightrope walking). Even the most untrained eye is so familiar with the recognition factor in portraiture he or she can spot the difference between a good portrait, a bad portrait, and simply "who's that?" The true child prodigy very often, and often very early, "attacks" the challenge of drawing and painting people's faces, succeeding sometimes with the first attempt, mastering the art after fewer than a dozen more.
Dante Rossetti Self-portrait, 1847, age nineteen
Cartoon of a Hunter and His
Dog in a Boat, 1858
Oscar Monet, age eighteen.
When we talk about child prodigies with regard to painting, the poster "boy" for such esteem is always Pablo Picasso. His 1896 masterpiece of teenaged overachievement (top) stands as a hallmark for all other teenagers, past and present, to measure up to. Likewise, Picasso had some "measuring up" to do as his effort is compared to that of such painting legends as the teenaged, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael de Sanzio, and the Pre-Raphaelite kingpin, Dante Rossetti (above). Each was a tough act to follow, but then again they were at least slightly older. A year or two of instruction, experience, and maturity came make a whale of a difference during such tender, formative years. Not all child prodigy artists paint portraits. Some, such as Georgia O'Keeffe (above, right) never do. Claude Oscar Monet painted himself numerous times in his later years but as a teenager, drew impudent little caricatures (left) which he sold for surprisingly good prices. There's no record as to whether he ever drew himself.

And for those prone to wonder "what this world is coming to," as Sonny and Cher proclaimed a generation ago, "The Beat Goes On." Teenage art prodigies still tackle their own likenesses, though they may no longer do so in paint, or even using art materials we old fogies used to refer to as "suitable for framing." Quite often today, their choice medium is pixels, not pigments. They look upon their desktops, decked out with a Wacom tablet, running Corel, Adobe, Serif, or Xara, augmented by images from their painterly 4-G devices as no less viable than the cumbersome pointy things used by the teenaged, mutant, Ninja artists of the past.

Jenny Halen Self-portrait, 2012--digital painting.


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