Author Bob Raczka shares the story behind his newest book, Before They Were Famous: How Seven Artists Got Their Start.
When I was a kid learning about historical figures, most of what I learned was about adults. But I remember reading a biography about Benjamin West, an American painter from the Revolutionary War era. It may have been Benjamin West: Gifted Young Painter by Dorothea J. Snow, published in 1967.
At any rate, this book told the story of Benjamin’s childhood–how he loved to draw, how he impressed everyone with his natural ability, and how he grew to become “the father of American painting.” What made this book speak to me was that it told the story of a boy like myself, not an adult icon with a list of accomplishments to memorize.
So when I stumbled upon a painting that Pablo Picasso made when he was just 8 years old (below), the boy in me knew that I was onto something. After all, even that old book about Benjamin West didn’t show any actual drawings or paintings that he made as a boy. And here I was staring at a Picasso painting from his childhood. I wondered if I could find childhood artwork from other famous artists, and just like that, this book was underway.
Unfortunately, finding the childhood works of famous artists wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. I knew I could find one for Albrecht Durer because I had used his boyhood self-portrait in an earlier book. I got lucky with Michelangelo–my editor, Carol Hinz, found an article online about a painting that had recently been attributed to him, made when he was 12. I found out John Singer Sargent kept sketchbooks of his boyhood travels in Europe, so that was very helpful.
My favorite work in the book may be 10-year-old Paul Klee’s black-and-white drawing of a carousel (left), which I discovered in one of his biographies. I hadn’t planned to look for the boyhood work of Salvador Dali–to be honest, he’s not one of my favorite artists–but once again Carol came through, finding some of his early stuff online. And the more I read about him, the more I liked him–at least as a boy.
The hardest part of this book was finding at least one female artist to include. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of female artists out there, but most of them are from the modern era. Remember, in the old days painting wasn’t considered an appropriate pastime for women. That’s is why I included Artemisia Gentileschi (one of her earliest known works, Saint Cecilia Playing the Lute, is at right). She made a name for herself during the Renaissance, when men still monopolized art.
I really wanted to include Georgia O’Keeffe, but couldn’t find any childhood works from her. Wouldn’t you know it, I recently went to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, where they showed a short film about her that featured two of her girlhood paintings. Where they are and who owns them, I don’t know. But I sure would’ve loved to have them in this book!