Battle of the Prodigies

By Daniel Hoffman

The definition of an artistic prodigy is a difficult one to pin down. It has been argued that such a prodigy must have the ability to effortlessly execute the recreation of what the eye can see. This usually manifests itself in drawing or even painting.

However, if this were the only definition of a prodigy, then perhaps names like Picasso, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh would be a dime a dozen.

Thankfully, they are not.

The second part to the equation is the life-long, unstoppable urge to create; and ultimately, to innovate.

Not just innovate the paradigms of their medium, but to continuously reinvent themselves. To break out of the barriers which they had once created.

By this natural progression, they not only transcend their own body of work, but they inevitably make tectonic shifts within the art world. At once dragging countless ships across the new seas which they have discovered.

Such can be said of titans such as Vang Gogh and Picasso. Each had an uncanny ability to faithfully recreate the world around them at a young age.

Each also followed a path of evolutionary enlightenment. Whether it be through sorrow, euphoria, collaboration, suffering, or sheer coincidence.

These cataclysmic events would give rise to entire new modes of art. With Picasso, we see the development of Cubism. With Van Gogh, the very beginnings of modern art itself.

I have titled this article “Battle of the Prodigies,” not to see past geniuses duke it out, but to playfully pit the kiddos’ early works against each other. We can also have a go at comparing their works with modern-day “prodigies.” I hope to compare and dissect the works of Picasso, Van Gogh, as well as three other modern-day artists who have had a varying range of acclaim.

By using the modern day child prodigy yardstick of Picasso’s first recorded artwork, Le Picador 1889, we will observe all such artists at the same age of 8.

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It is true, our friend Vincent Van Gogh was not treated as a prodigy by any means. How this outrageous talent could be overlooked baffles the mind, but thankfully records of Van Gogh’s early works are public today and apparently well-kept.

We start with Picasso’s famous first recorded work, Le Picador at the ripe age of 8. Utilizing what seems to be a 2 dimensional plane to recreate this exciting scene for the young Spaniard, the hero sits atop a dutifully-created horse. Although missing hands and facial features, this energetic scene will be the benchmark by which we compare other artists. We find an accurately-shaped horse with an even accurately-posed set of legs. Not easy for adults to tackle, including yours truly.

But what do we see when we compare Le Picador with Van Gogh’s earliest recorded work? In The Goat Herd we see two wonderfully-recognizable characters. One, a man complete with shaded coat and perfectly-shaped clogs. The other, a well-formed goat with shadow to boot. Maybe we had chosen the wrong image to use as a benchmark! Both works by Picasso and Van Gogh are their earliest, and both date to their 8th year. While one can say that an oil painting is infinitely harder as a medium for a child to execute, we are going to focus on accurate depiction of what the eye can see alone. If this is the case, the shading puts our friend Vincent in the lead. Not only does the shading more accurately depict the scene, but it also gives viewers a sense of depth which Picasso’s 2 dimensional plane has trouble portraying. Yes, the spectators in Le Picador are inferred to be behind the horse, yet there is no clear indication of depth by means of blurring.

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Let’s fast forward to several of today’s artists who have been dubbed prodigies by either the media, their families, or both. We will start with the American artist Akiane Kramarik whose early works have come under scrutiny for being possible hoaxes (one quick entry into google and the painter’s name is quickly followed by “hoax”). Nonetheless, her works later as a teenager are clearly one of a gifted naturalistic painter years ahead of her peers.

We will compare her “undisputed” work at the age of 8 with that of Le Picador above. Perhaps most notable of the painting by Kramarik is the precocious gradient of colors adorning the sunset. A clear command of the medium is at hand, but the subject matter (hills and a figure sitting over a body of water) show little in terms of being a naturalistic challenge. In fact, the hills themselves show highlights in opposing directions, indicating a potentially non-accurately-shaded scene, but let’s not be too hard on the 8 year old Kramarik, it is a wondrously-colored piece.

If the artist’s 8 year-old artwork is legitimate, then even though the accuracy of the shape of the figure is inconclusive, the painting does hint at the artist’s abilities to shade with gradients at an incredibly young age. We will give her credit as a colorist, yet will leave judgment of her abilities as a draftsman for another time.

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Multiple publications have commented on our next modern-day artist, yet details of their later works are hard to find. According to Wikipedia, the UK’s now famous Harry Pye’s Frank Magazine said, “One of the few things that enables (The Frank Organisation) to climb out of our spartan beds in the morning is the rare chance of discovering art or artists that are any good. And one such artist is Odessa’s Chamel Raghu.” High praise from a magazine mentioned positively in The Times and The Guardian, but how does the 8 year old’s work stand on its own? First off, we see that this piece titled Swan is executed not in pencil or paint, but rather the unforgiving medium of pen and ink. Oh sure, we know how an 8 year-old is going to handle an ink pen, and it will inevitably involve the words “mess” and “spill.” But wait a minute.

We find a mother and baby swan, floating elegantly in a pond. But this is no ordinary pond. And that is no ordinary body of water. You see, what we have here is an ink drawing depicting depth, rippling of water, and even texture of a swan’s down. There are even confidently-stroked blades of grass to boot. Indeed, the shape of the swans is unmistakable; as is the artist’s 8 year old gifts. Portraying depth in the same method as Van Gogh, Raghu is able to do so without the friendly pencil, but with the unforgiving pen.

High praise indeed from Frank Magazine, but even higher praise from those who have dabbled with drawing in ink. We see the similarities in talents from Picasso, as well as the unique shading and depth depiction from Van Gogh. And while this drawing’s merits are prodigal indeed, our lack of artwork from the artist from their later years is discouraging. We will, however, move on to our next modern-day artist.

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There are some in the UK who have called our next modern-day artist a “Mini Monet.” Indeed, with a penchant for landscapes, England’s Kieron Williamson has made a name for himself with his watercolors at the ripe age of 10. But it is his work at the age of 8 that we are interested in at the moment, and we turn to none other than the Queen of England for help.

Executed in the artist’s favorite medium, the Queen’s portrait is an incredible challenge to undertake; whether you are 8 years old, or 80. But our intrepid landscape artist tries nonetheless, and even though the Queen has a problem with symmetry (notably the eyes, nostrils and even shape of the face) we are able to tell that it is the Queen of England on this paper. That in and of itself is an accomplishment for Williamson; but the work falls short of naturalistic accuracy in the context of Picasso and Van Gogh.

So at the end of our exercise, we have compared notable prodigies from the past with proposed prodigies of the present and come to some startling conclusions. But is this test the true way to determine a prodigy? While we cannot definitively say that the work of an artist at age 8 is the only indicator of prodigy, it does give us a starting point to compare.

However, as mentioned earlier, there is a second part of the equation: innovation. Both in the artist’s own styles, and historically within the medium of art itself. To this end, Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo and others have paid their dues. They have created entirely new lines of artistic representation.

None of that can be said of our modern-day artists so far. The colorific Akiane Kramarik has progressed to be a versatile naturalistic painter, yet has not pioneered any unique style whatsoever.

The impressive ink drawing by Chamel Raghu at age 8 compares with some of the best, but the artist’s complete lack of published work as an adult leaves us wondering why. Did the artist retire? Or are they just woefully unproductive?

As the English artist Kieron Williamson’s noble attempt at naturalism at age 8 fell somewhat short, their later landscapes have hit a stride. This stride however has been seemingly re-hashed with each “new” landscape being produced, or shall we say, mass-produced?

It seems the term prodigy is being attached to many new names; but only time will tell if these new names will live up to that definition, or create one entirely their own. This essential trait of prodigies across the spectrum of humanity could be the biggest battle any prodigy can face.

*The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the respective author(s) and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he or she may be affiliated.