MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
The names you've probably heard of, but the artwork, probably not. It's the early work of artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Winslow Homer, the really early work, the drawings they made as children. A four year old Keith Haring's pencil drawing of two giraffes, and wouldn't you know, one of them has his signature polka dots. And Vincent van Gogh at age eight was using black chalk to sketch portraits with shading that captured the same dark emotion seen in his later work.
This kind of early artistry is featured in an exhibit at the Phillips Collection, a museum here in Washington, D.C., and also in a book called When We Were Young: New Perspectives on the Art of the Child. The author and curator is Jonathon Fineberg, an art history professor at the University of Illinois. He says in order to understand child art, you have to take off your adult glasses.
In a drawing by Pablo Picasso at age nine, there's a line of perfectly rendered pigeons. Don't focus on that, Fineberg says. Picasso's father was a pigeon painter. And don't focus on the bullring underneath the pigeons, either. Focus on the scribbled line behind the bullring.
Dr. JONATHON FINEBERG (University of Illinois): Because when you look at the scribble carefully, you see there's a self-confidence in that line that is just extraordinary. And that line moves from gesture to an outline to a contour to a figure, seamlessly moving from one thing to the next. And what is really great about Picasso, the mature Picasso, is his ability to see things in multiple ways simultaneously.
Other artists have different qualities. When you look at the childhood drawings of Klee, it's not that that we're looking for, but there's a depth of perception of human character in the Klee which is remarkable. At the age of four, you see (unintelligible) of the mature Klee.
NORRIS: When you talk about Paul Klee, there's one picture in particular I wanna ask you about. He's said to have been somewhere between age four and age six. It's a woman with an umbrella and there's a certain whimsy to that picture. It almost looks like the kind of drawings that you see in the cartoons in The New Yorker.
Dr. FINEBERG: Well, she's quite a character, isn't she?
NORRIS: She has quite a personality.
Dr. FINEBERG: Yes, absolutely. And here's a four year old picking up on that extraordinary personality. He's done a number of things that are fascinating there. He's also played with the materials. Look at the shape of the paper, which is not square. And, you know, we of course give a child an instruction when we give them a square piece of paper. We're telling a child to fill a certain space.
Here he's taken something that's not square and he's taken the available space. He's invented what to do with the space that he has, so the umbrella is twisted and broken, she's wider at the bottom than at the top. There are many things about her that are very funny and capture a kind of personality which is a foreshadowing, as I said, of the mature Klee.
NORRIS: And all that captured by someone who is not yet six years old.
Dr. FINEBERG: That's right.
NORRIS: In the book, you look at not just the early work of famous artists, but just children's artwork in general. How has it changed over time since you reached all the way back to the 16th Century and you also have in this book contemporary work, what's changed?
Dr. FINEBERG: Well, I think one of the things that's changed is the pervasiveness of standardized education. Especially now in America, we are busy trying to train children to pass tests, which means we're looking to have them all look the same. That's a very bad idea, because in the end you stamp out the kid's creativity. If there's one thing that is clear as an educator to me, it's that that is the most valuable thing to develop in a child.
I think that over time, you find that kind of standardization becoming more and more prevalent. Of course, the way in which we interpret childhood to children, through television and other means, that's become much more prevalent as a -
NORRIS: You see that in their artwork?
Dr. FINEBERG: Well, for example, for many, many years, children would draw two eyes on the same side of the head. And when television came along and children saw more and more cartoons, that disappeared.
NORRIS: In some cases, you can look at the early work of a child and then you start to see the same ideas in their later work. There's this one picture by Homer in particular, the very famous picture, The Nooning, where a child is laying out in sort of the, under a tree and you can sort of see the shadows and the dapple of the sun. And he's got that wonderful straw hat on. And then, lo and behold, there's this early work when he was less than ten years old and the form is almost exactly the same. Is there a sense that sometimes artists hold on to ideas for years and years and years and sometimes decades?
Dr. FINEBERG: Sure. I mean, early childhood is of course, we all know, is very formative. It really shapes a personality. And so the kind of preoccupations and interests and even, to some extent, the models of thinking in a child set a course for adulthood which is persevering. So certain subject matters keep coming back and certain ways of approaching a problem are there from almost birth.
NORRIS: I wanna ask you in particular about Vincent van Gogh's early drawings. The series of sketches, chalk to paper. There's two animal heads, a dog and a cow, and then three little pictures of men. One's bespectacled, one's got a hat on, one's sort of looking very dour. A lot of emotion in this pictures. What do you see when you look at those sketches?
Dr. FINEBERG: Well, one of the things that's clear there is here's a child who's trying to learn the skills of an artist early on. And of course one of the major tasks of childhood is to learn the rules of adulthood. And they often don't make sense to a child. I think the real character of van Gogh is, as you say, there are intimations of it in some of the expressions and the emotions of those figures.
NORRIS: Even the dog looks like he's in deep thought.
Dr. FINEBERG: Yes, but you know, it's fascinating. He's trying so hard to master drawing that he forgot to be a child. And Picasso's famous for having said, you know, walking through an exhibition of children's drawings, he said, boy, he said, when I was their age, I could draw like Rafael. It's taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.
NORRIS: Does this raise a nature versus nurture question? Are great artists made or born?
Dr. FINEBERG: I think they're, both elements are certainly there. There is no doubt that a child's personality is evident from the day they are born. I mean, when I look at my three children, each one was born in a way that was a prefiguration of their whole adult character.
But there is also a kind of insight that children have that shapes an adult perspective on the world so it is a back and forth thing. Both things are at play and our education's, of course, crucial.
NORRIS: When you look at early work, though, and you see such a clear understanding of form and also artistic skill, is it more, though, than just the skill or the ability to render something so it's almost picture perfect, is it also the ability to see something in a different way? The power of observation and interpretation.
Dr. FINEBERG: It's all about the power of observation. When you look at that Picasso drawing, it is not about rendering, because you can train anybody to render. And if you look at the five year old drawing of Sir Edwin Lancier, who turned out to be a maudlin dog painter for his mature career -
NORRIS: Oh, but that early painting of that -
Dr. FINEBERG: But that early drawing of a dog is much more skilled than anything Picasso was doing at the age of five. So, it's not about skill. It's not about the ability to render. Those are adult questions. Why should we ask a child adult questions? We should be asking questions appropriate to the child.
NORRIS: We are a society, in many ways, that is obsessed with history. So for all those parents out there that have pictures on their refrigerator and tacked up at their workspace, I guess the message is pack some of those away.
Dr. FINEBERG: Yes. And value the creativity of your children.
NORRIS: Thanks so much for coming in to speak to us.
Dr. FINEBERG: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.
NORRIS: It's been a pleasure.
Jonathon Fineberg is an art history professor at the University of Illinois. He's also the curator of a current exhibit at the Phillips Collection, a museum in Washington. That exhibit is called When We Were Young. And you can compare works by Winslow Homer and Paul Klee as children and adults and see that bullfight and pigeon sketch by a nine-year-old Pablo Picasso. That's at our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.