Monday, January 30, 2012

The Late Blooming Artist

In our community of visual art, there is a very divergent creative methodology that is the subject of a fascinating article in the New Yorker magazine, written by Malcolm Gladwell. (Late Bloomers; October 20, 2008 edition; page 38.) The article looks at the divergent phenomena of the youthful prodigy versus “late blooming” genius; he was particularly interested in a study of Cézanne and Picasso.

Picasso is his quintessential prodigy. Picasso launched his critically lauded career with his painting, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas, which he painted at age twenty. And he continued to produce works that are considered amongst his greatest masterpieces today in his youth. With Cézanne, however, the story is much different. Gladwell chooses to illustrate the difference as follows: “If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career.”

The sales statistics of the two artists are revealing. Gladwell discovered that paintings done by Picasso in his twenties are worth, on average, four times that or work done by the painter when in his sixties whereas, with Cézanne, paintings done in his sixties are worth an estimated fifteen times the value of works done in his youth.

In wondering why, Gladwell asks a very interesting question, and he provides examples of careers like those of Cézanne and Picasso in film and poetry and, in particular, the story of one writer, Ben Fountain. Fountain’s story is a fascinating one; he is a Cézanne, a late bloomer. His novel, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, took eighteen years to write. It is a collection of short stories that the Times Book Review called “heartbreaking.”

Gladwell goes into a study of process, examining the evolution of Brief Encounters. What strikes you is the amount of research Fountain does to support his writing. His first indulgence is visual dictionaries and architectural dictionaries in order to have the descriptive vocabulary he wanted. Then he began to collect articles that interested him and that had him realize he was interested in the country of Haiti.

Next came the visits to Haiti. In all, Fountain goes to Haiti thirty times. As well, he invited Haitians to his home. He was fascinated with Haiti, its history and culture and often his interest was in the oral history of times past. His passion led to the creation of four of the stories in the novel—stories Gladwell feels are the strongest—and the development of these particular stories reveal the role of personality in the creative process of late bloomers.

“Prodigies like Picasso,” writes Gladwell, “rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it.” He quotes Picasso who says: “I can hardly understand the importance given to the work ‘research.’ In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. TO find is the thing…. I have never made trials or experiments.”

Gladwell’s article then moves into more of a study of personality, often referencing University of Chicago economist, David Galenson. Galenson is the author of a study on poetry, age and creativity published in 1980, that cites an aspect of personality in some artists that has them view their work as forever imperfect. It is a stunning story, particularly when he illustrates his theory with Cézanne’s history.

The thesis is that the personality of the late bloomer is oriented to research and experimentation and requires time to achieve their desired goals—and their goals must meet their own exacting and demanding standards. And this aspect of their process opens the door to the need for support and as Gladwell moved into this aspect of his story, I thought of Theo van Gogh and the touching and essential support he provided to his brother Vincent. Both men are ideological heroes of mine.

But I did not know the story of the people who supported Cézanne and, in particular, the incredible role of the artist’s first “official” sponsor, Ambrose Vollard. At the urging of Cézanne’s other supporters (Zola and Pissarro) plus Renoir, Degas and Monet, Vollard went to visit Cézane is Aix, in the south of France. While there, he found a Cézanne in a tree, had one thrown at him from the upper storey of a home and he bought all that he could from citizens who had found other discarded canvases. Another startling aspect of Cézanne’s process: Vollard sat one hundred and fifty times from eight am to eleven thirty for his portrait that Cézanne ultimately rejected.

I particularly love that Gladwell’s article opens the door to genius (or success) for us all: “Sometimes genius is anything but rarified; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty-two years of working at your kitchen table.” We who were not prodigies may be late bloomers, so hope can live forever in us. And this is where Gladwell’s article leaves us: not so much moved by an understanding of the creative process of late bloomers, but in the moving stories of the people who provided essential support to them.

David Fountain’s wife supported the eighteen-year gestation of Brief Encounters happily; she had complete confidence in her husband. Cézanne’s father, Louis-Auguste unhesitatingly supported his son’s life financially; he shared his son’s commitment to and passion for artistic “perfection.” When Louis-Auguste died, he left his son four hundred thousand francs. And Theo’s devotion to his brother was not just financial. Theo was the emotional bedrock of Vincent’s life. As Gladwell writes: “Late bloomer’s stories are invariably love stories.”

Read the article:


  1. Thanks Chris, I enjoyed that article and I'll be pondering it for a while.

  2. This is a great article. And if you had seen an episode of The Nature of Things aired a couple of weeks ago on "Surviving the Teenaged Brain" you might find it even more interesting. That episode discussed how incredibly creative younger brains are, they can have an amazing amount of output but are easily frustrated and often require instant gratification from the task they are performing. How many "geniuses" have been lost to a simple failed project or a dissuading parent? An older person is more likely to be accustomed to various forms of failure and may have more patience to put in the time for experimentation. I think the late bloomers always had the ingredients for success, the conditions just weren't right.


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