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Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art

Author(s):Galenson, David W.
Reviewer(s):Agnello, Richard

Published by EH.NET (May 2002)

David W. Galenson, Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in

Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. xvi + 251 pp.

$29.95 (cloth), IBSN: 0-674-00612-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard Agnello, Department of Economics, University of


“I progress very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex

ways; and the progress needed is endless (Paul Cezanne). … I paint objects as

I think them, not as I see them (Pablo Picasso) (p. 51).”

David W. Galenson (Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago) has

written a marvelous book, which explores the effects of the two distinct views

of human creativity expressed in these quotes. This exploration provides

delightful reading as well as a careful academic exercise, which will appeal to

students of both art history and economics. It is rare that a single work

should ratify assessments in two distinct disciplines, and thus bridge the wide

differences in approach and techniques between two fields. Art history assesses

the merit of painters and their works by evaluating their innovation and impact

on later artists, whereas economics usually measures merit by market prices.

Galenson demonstrates a convergence in these two valuations across over one

hundred years of modern painting from the French Impressionists of the late

nineteenth century to the post Abstract American Expressionists of the late

twentieth century.

In addition, the book sheds light on the determinants of changes in artistic

creativity over the stages of an artist’s career. Why do some artists produce

their best works while young like Picasso, while others like Cezanne continue

to improve and refine their styles through their lifetimes? Although the career

age/earnings profiles derived for modern painters have some degree of

individual uniqueness, there is strong correlation within the various

generations of art styles over the period. Galenson finds systematic shifts in

the age/earnings profile for the four birth cohorts of artists in the study.

Thus, twice during the last one hundred years of modern art the age at which an

artist produced his best work has gone from older to younger peaks. Measuring,

hypothesizing the causes, and documenting in detail the shifts in labor

productivity for the most famous modern era artists comprise the bulk of the


In order to provide an economic measure of artistic creativity Galenson uses

price data for paintings sold at auction from 1970 to 1997. Art is a

particularly appealing application of productivity analysis because output

valuation data are readily available in the form of painting prices generated

by public auction. Hedonic regressions are estimated for each artist using log

price as the dependent variable and various characteristics from the auction

and the painting itself as independent variables. One of these characteristic

variables is the artist’s age when the painting was executed. Using a nonlinear

specification for age, the regression is able to capture a variety of average

estimated relationships between age and value for the artists included in the

study. These estimated relationships document what the market indicates are the

time periods in which a particular artist was most creative. Although one can

criticize various details of the data and econometric technique, these findings

flow from standard statistical analysis.

Whether these auction-market-generated age/value results are meaningful and not

just a statistical artifact or a manifestation of the current whims of wealthy

collectors depends on how they compare with the assessment of scholars.

Galenson proceeds to weave an art historical web around the empirical findings

by counting citations for each painting as a measure of the artistic value of

the work. In particular he uses the number of illustrations from thirty-three

textbooks published since 1968 for the French Impressionists, and the frequency

of retrospective exhibitions for American artists. Although not without

difficulty these measures do reflect to a certain degree implicit valuations by

scholarly writers and museum curators. Perhaps this crude but reasonable

initial attempt by Galenson to empirically measure artistic merit will

encourage more research. The numbers of these citations for paintings executed

in each five-year period of an artist’s life represent the value of an artist’s

career stages based on scholarly assessment. The relationship between these

citations and the collector values generated from market auctions are

remarkably similar for the various stages of each artist’s career. For over

ninety percent of the French artists included, collector valuation and scholar

valuation agree on the most important decade of the artist’s career. For the

exceptions such as Matisse, Galenson carefully details potential causes. For

American artists the findings show a similar convergence of values. Thus, for

whatever reason, the opinions of art experts and the outcomes of art auctions

are in agreement as to when modern painters produced their most important work.

The results are a victory for both art historians and art economists. Each

group has the support of the other. Relative economic valuations appear not to

be a “floating crap game,” but instead to be clearly grounded in the

scholarship of art history (see William J. Baumol, “Unnatural Value: or Art as

Floating Crap Game” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings,


Galenson next tackles the questions of what makes modern art important and why

artists do their best work at different stages in their careers. This

fascinating discussion will certainly appeal to art historians, but should also

interest many others since the parallels with other fields are numerous.

Academics, especially those interested in labor economics, will definitely find

the discussion of peer review, short and long run success, and effects of

changing market structures on career time paths interesting and one that may

stimulate additional research. The main contributors to artistic value are

innovation and the impact one’s work has on other artists. Thus, the question

why particular artists have produced their most valuable work at different ages

can be restated as why have they innovated and impacted their profession at

different career stages. Galenson argues that the timing of an artist’s major

career contributions depends critically on the methods by which innovations are

produced. The procedures and also the motivations for undertaking the work

determine the pattern of innovation. Experimental innovators, like the late

French Impressionists, tended to refine their work continually by trial and

error and thus achieve their most important contributions late in life.

Conceptual innovators, like the cubists, made quick breakthroughs that

revolutionized both the way art was executed and the way it was interpreted.

These artists tended to produce their best work at an early age. These

fundamentally opposed approaches to art account quite well for differences in

the age/value profiles. In addition, the approach used tends to be

generation-specific causing an oscillation in these approaches through time

with young artists going in diametrically different paths from the previous

older generation.

The rest of the book is devoted to a careful documentation of the individual

careers of modern artists, their styles, and the environments in which they

produced their work. The details are fascinating, and too numerous to describe

at length. Galenson’s treatment displays a depth of knowledge uncharacteristic

for those writing outside their primary field. Serious students of art history

as well as novices should find his thorough treatment both impressive and

interesting. Parallels with other academic disciplines abound. In summary, the

book is not only worth reading by anyone interested in art, but mandatory for

art historians and art economists. The findings and especially the scientific

methodologies employed should also encourage further work in an effort to test

the robustness and replicability of the results. Other epochs of art should be

examined as well as other time periods of economic valuation. The upsurge in

art prices in the last thirty years has changed both absolute and relative

valuations, and may also have changed career age/value profiles. Future price

movements may alter these profiles. Painting Outside the Lines will

impact and perhaps bring closer art historical and economic research in the

future, and thus provide a shining example of innovation.

Richard Agnello is author of several papers in art economics including

“Financial Returns, Price Determinants, and Genre Effects in American Art

Investment” (with R. Pierce), Journal of Cultural Economics (1996), pp.

359-383, and “Investment Returns and Risk for Art: Evidence from Auctions of

American Paintings,” Eastern Economic Journal (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII