06 Aug, 2009

Meet the Mozart of painting

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The Dutch artist didn’t progress as far as his friend and contemporary, Rembrandt, but he was that rarest of things – a superbly gifted young painter

Child prodigies are more common in music than in art. Does this mean that the parts of our brains that govern music develop at an earlier stage than our visual mind? Although most children make art, it doesn’t usually look like great adult art. In fact, the influence of children on modern art was precisely to unleash the power of art brut, “raw art”. But Mozart was composing and playing to the highest conventional standards as a child, as the performance of two pieces composed when he was eight has just demonstrated.

A painting that Michelangelo did as a teenager is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. A news story surfaced at the end of last week about a five-year-old watercolourist. But there are far more examples of great artists who started late than ones who started early. We speak of late Titian and late Matisse – in fact, Matisse became interested in art as an adult.

But child prodigy painters do, in fact, exist. Just look at Jan Lievens. I recently saw an eye-opening exhibition of this 17th-century Dutch artist’s work in Amsterdam, where it had toured from the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Here was an artist who really did paint grown-up masterpieces when he was very young.

When Lievens was 14 he was already amazing the town of Leiden with ambitious historical paintings and low-life scenes. There was a deep originality to these youthful works – their golden light, soft heroic grandeur and baroque, rollicking freedom made them stand out. His youthful art is serious and profound; it’s not just technically, but emotionally advanced.

Lievens had a gifted contemporary in Leiden: the young Rembrandt. They were friends, and shared a studio. You can genuinely see how Rembrandt was influenced by the prodigious works of his friend – and went on being influenced by him. He took their shared heroic style to heights that Lievens never achieved. But a prodigy Lievens was – a rarity in oil painting.

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