What Makes a Child an Art Prodigy?

The paintings of seven-year-old Aelita Andre have sold for tens of thousands of dollars, raising the question of what separates true, precocious genius from mere youthful creativity with hype.

Nikka Andre

Stand before any abstract painting—try a Jackson Pollock or a Cy Twombly— and it’s inevitable someone will say: My child could have done that. For many, the dripping splatters or scribbles seem haphazard and simplistic, not unlike something an average toddler might do with a set of finger paints. And as contemporary art becomes more conceptual, it’s harder to know what makes a piece of art great: the object itself, the story behind it, or both? Seven-year-old Australian abstract painter Aelita Andre, whose latest exhibition opened in Manhattan last week, embodies what one art historian calls the “my kid could do that” impulse. Once again, the media seems taken with the idea that a child’s art may be a joke on a self-important art world.

But Aelita’s journey to the center of the New York art scene raises deeper questions about what actually makes a prodigy and to what extent the artist even matters. Are her pieces only here, in one of the most influential art markets— and reportedly selling for five-figure sums—because she’s so young? Must a prodigy eventually break new ground? Be able to reflect on her work? Are prodigies culturally determined or are there scientific criteria?

When I arrive at the 18th Street gallery two blocks west of Chelsea’s blue-chip art district, Aelita seems like a typical little girl in bright pink sneakers. She runs from a back room, energetic and shy. It is the day before the opening of “Oracle of Space," her third, solo New York show (her last was in June 2012). This time, her current gallery is calling it a "pop-up" exhibition, since it runs only for a week, with the pieces then stored on Mott street for potential buyers to view. Aelita’s parents tell me she’s still jetlagged and wakes them at 3:30 a.m., ready to the start the day. Her canvases, some of which incorporate glitter and tiny, plastic dinosaurs—the kind you might find in a child’s party favor—are already labeled with whimsical, precocious titles like “The Dome of the Dinosaur Spa” and “Rainbow Splash And The Fish Feather.” Her mother is adamant that Aelita names each painting unassisted.

On the advice of my five-year old son, since it’s Halloween week, I’ve brought the artist a red, candy Ring Pop she plays with or sucks on for most of our time together. My son has also given me a list of questions for Aelita, which I sprinkle during my adult ones. Have you seen Frozen? Yes. Do you like princesses? Not all, only the really strong ones. Who are your favorite artists? Well, you and daddy, pointing to her parents, a photographer and a filmmaker. What do you want to be when you grow up? A paleontologist and a painter.

As the story goes, Aeilta started painting before she could walk. According to her Australian father Michael Andre, at around nine months, she crawled onto a canvas of his and started “smearing paints around.” Within a year, Aelita had amassed a collection of over 60 paintings in the family’s home. When Aelita was 19 or 20 months, her Russian-born mother Nikka Kalashnikova decided to show some of her daughter’s work “on a whim” to Mark Jamieson, the director of a commercial gallery in Melbourne that represented her own photography.

“I just looked at [Aelita’s paintings] and thought it was something really amazing,” Kalashnikova recalled. “I simply told the curator she’s a female artist. After all, you never walk into a gallery and say, this artist is 24 or this one is 84. I wanted Aelita’s work judged on its own merits.” Kalashnikova admits she felt “strange and silly” with a baby’s portfolio. “I thought this is probably all in my imagination,” she said. “And of course, I’m biased because I’m her mother.”

But Jamieson immediately wanted to include the toddler’s work in an upcoming group exhibition, along several of Kalashnikova’s photographs. It was only when Jamieson started promoting Aelita’s art in magazines that Kalashnikova says she had to come clean about the artist’s true identity. At that point, Jamieson “consulted with his colleagues” to determine whether he should show a child’s paintings—and, according to Aelita’s parents, ultimately decided that the work spoke for itself, regardless of the painter’s age.

Less than two years after the bottom of the financial crisis, four-year-old Aelita had progressed to a three-week solo exhibition, “Prodigy of Color,” at Chelsea’s Agora Gallery.

The show included 24 paintings, all of which reportedly sold for between $4,000 and $10,000— not eye-popping prices in Chelsea, but certainly so for a preschooler with no formal art training. The following June, the Agora Gallery ran a second solo Aelita show, “Secret Universe,” and the artist beat her previous record, when one of the canvases garnered over $12,000. Gallery materials described Aelita's work as “complex yet accessible, sophisticated yet unguided,” and mentioned that her first show sold out in seven days. The family says Aelita’s highest sale to date has been a 60 by 153 inch acrylic painting titled “Birch Forest in Space,” to an independent collector for $50,000.

* * *

“On the surface, abstract art by painters like Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly might look similar to child art or art done by monkeys and chimps,” said Dr. Ellen Winner, chair of psychology at Boston College and senior associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, a research group that studies the nature of intelligence and creativity. But in a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, Winner found that adults, untrained in the visual arts, were able to distinguish abstract work by professional artists—vetted by museum curators and art history textbooks—from “strikingly similar works made by untrained children and nonhuman animals” like elephants. While participants did not select the professional artist 100 percent of the time, people’s correct choice of adult or human work was significantly above chance—challenging the common claim that abstract art is no better than that of an ordinary child.

Winner is also the author of “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities” and more than 100 articles about child psychology and cognition in the arts. And while all children might make “beautiful art,” a child who is a prodigy has what Winner calls a "rage to master,” an obsession to conquer the craft and spend hours honing his or her skills. Typically however, child prodigies draw realistically, not abstractly, and they don’t have any interest in sharing their work.

Dr. Jennifer E. Drake, an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and Dr. Winner’s co-author of the Scientific American Mind article “How to Spot Artistic Brilliance,” describes a seven-year old drawing prodigy she studied. “Prodigies have an intense drive to draw. They want to draw the minute they get up and the minute they get home from school,” Dr. Drake explained. “They don’t care about showing their art.” One seven-year-old drew “complicated transformers” in a highly realistic manner on a white board, and then simply erased it and started all over again, propelled by some internal drive.

Drake’s recent research also found that the ability to draw hyper-realistically— created by children she calls precocious realists—is neither a function of IQ, age, gender, or training. As she describes it, precocious realists have the ability to immediately zone in on the details, as opposed to first sketching in the overall shapes. Drake sees a clear division between someone who is gifted and someone who is a prodigy.

It turns out, unlike math, music, and chess prodigies, child art prodigies are the hardest to find, according to Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and author of the forthcoming book, “The Prodigy’s Cousin: One Psychologist’s Amazing Story of the Link Between Autism and Genius.” She tracks more than 30 prodigies, but has only five art prodigies in her group. While she can’t disclose who’s in the cohort, she can say Aelita is not—although she’s highly interested in meeting her.

“I have seen her art online and I do think she’s a prodigy,” said Ruthsatz, who assures skeptics that “stage parents” can’t mold a child prodigy. Prodigies have a nature component that all the nurturing in the world can’t compensate for. “There is a biological difference that kicks in with these kids and they become obsessed with their work and want to engage in their art or play the piano all the time, even though they are ordinary kids in the sandbox.”

From the start of Aelita’s career, it appears that her family has tried to document her “rage to master,” producing time-lapse videos so viewers can witness the artist painting a canvas from start to finish. In one video, Aelita proclaims, “I will paint for 24 hours.” While her father is a filmmaker, it’s difficult to ignore the context. A decade ago, there was an abstract child artist named Marla Olmstead, who by age four was similarly hailed in the Chelsea art world as an art prodigy. The situation changed when 60 Minutes was allowed to install a hidden camera to observe the little girl painting in her basement. After witnessing the footage, Dr. Ellen Winner told 60 Minutes she saw no evidence of a child prodigy, but rather, “a normal, charming, adorable child painting the way a preschooler might,” except that she had a coach (in this case, maybe her father) to keep her going. In other words, Winner didn’t see signs of the “rage to master.”

The contrast between child and artist is on full display at Aelita's art opening. Her latest exhibition is comprised of 18 new pieces, ranging from $6,000 to $21,000 dollars, including her first collection of sculptures—a series of painted violins ($3,500) and a metal foil unicorn ($6,000), which her press materials say conjures “the finest work of the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti.” (Incidentally, a week after her opening, Sotheby's breaks an auction record, selling a Giacometti for $101 million dollars.) So far, according to Laura O'Reilly, director of Gallery 151 paintings have sold and seven are on hold.

At the outset, Aelita is charming bloggers, talking animatedly about her love of dinosaurs and painting. But like any normal seven-year-old, as the night wears on, she behaves much like I would have feared my five-year-old at an evening art event. At one point, she runs around the back of the gallery shrieking (a guest remarks it sounds like a haunted house). At another, she takes an entire block of cheese from the tray to eat with her hands. When it’s time to participate in a video interview and assess printouts of some of the greatest modern artists’ work, Aelita wants to clutch a stuffed bear on her lap.

And like many parents, hers seem to take it in stride when not all goes as planned because she’s too tired to play on one of her painted violin canvases for the press as scheduled. “I couldn’t imagine an adult doing this artwork,” Michael Andre tells me.

“To be honest, she doesn’t care about all of this and being on television,” Kalashnikova explains. “It’s not about that for her. She’s a child, and she just wants to paint all the time.”

For better or worse, the definition of prodigy is the mastery of something highly complex or culturally valued at a young age, usually under 10, said Dr. David Henry Feldman of Tufts University, who is largely credited as the grandfather of modern prodigy research. “It’s nature conspiring with culture,” he explained, “a combination of personal qualities these children have at a very young age, enormous discipline and patience, as well as their parents’ desire to nurture and foster their natural abilities. But you find prodigies where cultures care to look for them.”

His research also shows that intelligence scores can vary tremendously among prodigies. For example, it appears that an art prodigy only requires a modest IQ, whereas math prodigies, overall, have considerably higher intellect than the general population. That said, Dr. Feldman cautions to take all prodigy research with a grain of scientific salt. “Remember, we are talking about a tiny, tiny field of work, maybe 50 cases worldwide.”

Pablo Picasso is probably history’s most recognized child art prodigy, finishing Le Picador, of a man riding a horse in a bullfight, at age nine. Picasso is also famous for allegedly saying, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Perhaps like Picasso, Aelita’s art journey has just begun and she will emerge as one of the most innovative or influential artists of the 21st century. Perhaps, she will buck art prodigy tradition—to the extent that there is any— and flip-flop to become an acclaimed realist, like Andrew Wyeth. Or perhaps she’ll be a paleontologist, with quite a story about her childhood.