Interview: David Galenson

Pondering the nature of artistic genius, a social scientist finds that creativity has a bottom line

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University of Chicago economist David Galenson recently conducted a quantitative study of artistic greatness. His findings appear in his Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.

What are the two life cycles?

There are two very different types of artists, which I call Old Masters, who work by trial and error and tend to improve with age, and conceptual people, or Young Geniuses, who generally do their best work early in their careers.

How did you measure creativity?

For painters, I looked at auction prices for their works and at art history textbooks and museum retrospectives. In almost all cases, the largest number of an artist's paintings included in textbooks and retrospectives were painted at the same age that his or her works brought the highest prices at auction. For Cezanne, auction prices are highest for works made in the last year of his life, when he was 67. For Picasso, the highest prices were for works he did at age 26. The age at which Cezanne paintings were most likely to appear in textbooks was when he was 67. For Picasso, it was age 26. In the two artists' most recent retrospectives, Cezanne's best year was age 67. Picasso's was 26. I've done this analysis for several hundred artists.

Who fits the Old Masters profile?

Cezanne, of course, but also Rembrandt, whose work got greater and greater to the very end of his life. Louise Bourgeois is an Old Master.

And the Young Geniuses?

In addition to Picasso, Raphael and Vermeer were Young Geniuses. Most important artists working today--Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst--are also Young Geniuses.


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