What Do the Childhood Works of Famous Artists Look Like?

Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) at the age of 26; Salvador Dalí completed The Persistence of Memory (1931) by 27; and Michelangelo unveiled a completed David (1501–4) to the public at 29. All masterpieces—and all completed before they hit 30.

How did these artists achieve such astonishing results so early in their careers? Innate talent was a factor, of course. But they also started young: Picasso, Dalí, and Michelangelo were all painting by their early teens. Below are childhood works by seven now-famous artists, each offering a glimpse into the evolution of artistic genius.


Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at Thirteen (1484)

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at the age of thirteen, 1484. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At 28, Dürer painted his most famous self-portrait—a work that depicts the artist in a rich, fur-lined coat, long hair hanging loose around his shoulders. No less striking is this masterful drawing, completed when he was just 13 years old. Dürer’s teenage self-portrait was made around the time that he began working as an apprentice at his father’s Nuremberg jewelry shop. It wasn’t long before the precocious youth abandoned the family business to train with local artist Michael Wolgemut, with whom he learned the ins and outs of woodcut illustration. Dürer would go on to revolutionize the art of printmaking, in the process becoming the most significant German artist of the Renaissance.


Paul Klee, Woman With Parasol (1883–5)

Children’s drawing of a lady with a parasol, made in 1883-1885 by the 4-6 year old Paul Klee. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1902, fresh from four years of art school in Rome, Klee stumbled upon a stash of his own childhood drawings—including this sketch of a woman clutching an improbably-angled umbrella. He described these works, completed between the ages of three and 10, as “the most significant [I have made] until now.” The Bauhaus teacher would continue to extol the virtues of children’s art throughout his career, going so far as to copy his own son’s sketches into his mature paintings to achieve the unstudied quality he valued so highly.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Hand) (c. 1902)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Hand), c. 1902. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (2006.05.002). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

In 1901, a 14-year-old O’Keeffe left her family’s idyllic farm for Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic boarding school on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. During her first day at Sacred Heart, the students were asked to sketch a plaster cast of a baby’s hand. The teacher declared O’Keeffe’s version too small and heavily drawn, leaving her on the verge of tears. In the months that followed, the young artist worked doggedly to improve. Her instructor took note, labeling O’Keeffe’s drawings with her name and proudly displaying them on the classroom walls. “I was shocked to see my name so big and black on my pale drawings,” the painter later recalled. “It didn’t seem like my name—it was someone quite apart from me.”


Salvador Dalí, Landscape Near Figueres (1910–1914)

Salvador Dalí, Fiesta in Figueres, 1914-1916. Worldwide rights ©Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017 / In the USA ©Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017. Photo courtesy of The Dalí Museum.  

Salvador Dalí, Landscape of Figueres, 1910-1914. Worldwide rights ©Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017 / In the USA ©Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017. Photo courtesy of The Dalí Museum.

This diminutive work is thought to be the artist’s earliest extant painting, completed between the ages of six and 10 on the back of a blank postcard. (Look closely, and a printed design is visible through the thinly painted sky and clouds.) Dalí grew up in the small Spanish town of Figueres, not far from Barcelona, and many of his earliest works reflect the local Catalan landscape. Inspired by Ramón Pichot, his mentor and family friend, the young Dalí worked mostly in an Impressionist style. A professional artist who was close with Picasso, Pichot eventually convinced Dalí’s father to send his son to art school in Madrid—launching the career of the irreverent, world-famous Surrealist.


Pablo Picasso, The Picador (1889–90)

Pablo Picasso, The Picador, 1890. Image via Wikiart.

Picasso’s first teacher was his father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who worked as a drawing instructor at a local art school. As the young boy’s skills grew, he would occasionally be called upon to add the finishing touches to his father’s paintings. Never one for modesty (false or otherwise), Picasso later said: “I never drew like a child. When I was 12, I drew like Raphael.” Although his drawings from around that age do reveal an accomplished draftsman with an impressive grasp of musculature, The Picador—his earliest surviving painting, completed when he was eight—was made before Picasso began formal art lessons. More than innate genius, this early work marks the beginnings of a lifelong preoccupation with the bullfight and all its trappings.


Edward Hopper, Little Boy Looking at the Sea (1891)

This image was drawn on the back of Edward Hopper’s third grade report card dated October 23, 1891, when Hopper was nine years old. Little Boy Looking at the Sea, n.d. The Arthayer R. Sanborn Hopper Collection Trust.

Hopper, born to a middle-class family in Nyack, New York, began drawing at age five. His parents offered nothing but encouragement, gifting him a blackboard at seven and instructional drawing books at 10. (Presciently, he labeled his childhood paint box with the phrase “WOULD-BE ARTIST.”) This pen-and-ink drawing was discovered on the back of Hopper’s third grade report card, dated October 23, 1891. Like the young boy in his sketch, Hopper spent much of his young life by the water—his childhood room overlooked the Hudson River, and he would often prowl its banks with a sketchbook in hand to capture the construction and rigging of the boats docked there.  


Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Torment of Saint Anthony (1487)

Michelangelo, The Torment of Saint Anthony, ca. 1487-1488. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Michelangelo’s talent was apparent as early as 12 or 13, as this extraordinarily detailed painting demonstrates. His earliest biographers claim that, aside from a handful of drawings, this piece—depicting one of a series of trials and temptations that St. Anthony endured during a pilgrimage through the desert—was the Italian master’s very first painted work. Although this was a copy of an engraving by 15th-century German artist Martin Schongauer, Michelangelo has slightly altered the original. A trip to the fish market inspired the young painter to depict one of the demons with glistening scales, while the Italian Arno River Valley has been incorporated into the background.  


—Abigail Cain


Correction:

A previous version of this article misstated the current holder of two childhood works by Salvador Dalí. The works are in the collection of The Dalí Museum, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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