Prodigies, Late Bloomers and Art

David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, has loved fine art ever since he was an undergraduate at Harvard more than 20 years ago and took a modern art course affectionately known as "spots and dots."

For years, he wondered if there was a relationship between age and artistic accomplishment: Do artists produce their most important work when they're old and experienced, or young and innovative?

Galenson says he has the answer. Age does matter, according to his study of French and American modern artists. But that finding didn't surprise him as much as the generational pattern he discovered: Eras in which artists produce their best work late in their lives seem to be followed by periods in which artists peak relatively young, often never to surpass their earlier work.

Galenson examined the careers of 42 leading American painters born before 1920 and found that most did their best work after they turned 40 years old, and that many produced their masterpieces in their early fifties. But those born after 1920 typically painted their masterpieces before their 40th birthday; the median age at which they produced their best work was 32, he reports in a paper to be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

A similar late-bloomer/prodigy pattern emerged when he examined 50 French artists from the 19th century. Painters born after 1850 were more than twice as likely than artists born before 1850 to have completed their most important paintings before they turned 40.

Why were periods of late bloomers followed by prodigies in French and American modern art? Galenson argues it's all in the nature of artistic innovation. The late bloomers flourished in times when the established order was being challenged. They were experimenters, often repeatedly painting the same scene or painting over a work. Paul Cezanne, for example, painted numerous views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. The artists' success came late, often after years of struggle and rejection -- and sometimes not until they were dead.

The prodigies, on the other hand, followed on the heels of the experimenters and exploited the markets they created. These artists often achieved instant fame from what Galenson called "conceptual" innovations. While experimental innovations take time, "conceptual innovations can occur at any age." And because they "involve seeing radically new solutions to old problems, extreme conceptual innovations are in fact often made by young artists," he said.

Frequently, this "extreme" innovation was a single breakthrough idea like cubism or Andy Warhol's pop-art silk-screens -- ideas that they never again matched in their artistic lives. That's why even though Pablo Picasso made art well past his seventies, people pay the most for the works he did when he was in his twenties. Likewise, works that Warhol did in his early thirties fetch the most at auction, Galenson says.

There are, of course, some exceptions. Henri Matisse was a prodigy-era French painter. But it's the work he did in his sixties that commands the highest prices.

In Galenson's view, artistic value is accurately measured by selling price. The higher the price a specific painting brought at auction, the more "valuable" it is as a piece of art. Thus, by comparing the price a painting fetched at auction with the age of the artist at the time it was painted, Galenson claims to be able to identify when the artist was doing his or her most important work. (In all, he analyzed nearly 23,000 individual sales between 1970 and 1997 to fix each artist's "age of peak value.")

But does price really equal quality? The concept is anathema to many art critics and historians. Artistic success "is completely unquantifiable," said Robert Storr, a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"He is wrong," Galenson replied. To prove his claim, Galenson catalogued paintings done by his artists that appeared in 33 major art history books as well as those displayed in five leading American museums and shown at major retrospective exhibitions. Surely art lovers would agree, he says, that such paintings would have to rank among an artist's best work.

At what age did the artists paint these masterpieces, and how closely did they match Galenson's estimate of each artist's age of peak value?

Quite well, actually. However Galenson measured it, an artist's most important work was also the most valuable. At MoMA -- where naysayer Storr works -- "92 percent of the paintings displayed at the museum were done within 10 years of the artists' estimated [price] peaks," Galenson said.

You can reach The Unconventional Wiz at: morinr@washpost.com

Here is the estimated age at which selected French modern artists painted their most valuable works, based on the prices paid for their paintings sold at auction between 1970 and 1997, according to Galenson.

Artist Year of Birth Estimated Age of Peak Value

Eugene Delacroix 1798 58

Camille Pissarro 1830 45

Edouard Manet 1832 50

Edgar Degas 1834 46

Paul Cezanne 1839 67

Georges Seurat 1859 29

Henri de 1864 26

Toulouse-Lautrec

Pablo Picasso 1881 26

Georges Braque 1882 28

Marc Chagall 1887 29

CAPTION: Degas

CAPTION: Picasso

CAPTION: Seurat