June 22, 2011 at 9:37 AM ET
The littlest art critics -- a bunch of 9-month-olds in Switzerland -- preferred the works of Picasso over Monet in a recent study.
Paintings by the Spanish artist appealed more to the diaper-clad set than those by the Frenchman in a series of five different experiments published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
Now, you may wonder: How much insight can an infant offer when comparing cubism to impressionism?
"At 9-months of age, infants' vision is already much the same as in adults," says Trix Cacchione, a psychologist at the University of Zurich, and the study's lead author. "To an infant, a painting is most likely only a perceptual pattern and their aesthetic preferences are most likely guided by low-level functions of the visual system."
Researchers wanted to understand whether the little ones would favor one artist's style over another, what types of visual images appealed to them (Picasso's highly-abstract elements vs. Monet's more realistic landscapes), and whether babies display a preference for certain colors, shapes and contrasts.
Not yet art snobs -- well, barely able to offer more than some high-pitched squeals, smiles and drool -- the babies were shown the artwork on a computer screen while sitting on a parent's lap.
In one of the experiments, 24 infants (14 girls, 10 boys), were shown either six paintings by Picasso or the same number by Monet, and researchers measured their "look time" at each image. They then introduced two paintings side by side, one from each artist, Picasso's "Landscape of Juan-les-pin" and Monet's "Poppy Field Near Giverny."
Babies who had been viewing the Monets preferred the Picasso -- it was something new and different to their eyes. But the infants who had been shown the Picassos also looked longer at the new Picasso.
Some tykes were booted from the study because of "fussiness." Being a research participant is tough stuff when you're not yet 300 days old and your diaper may be filled with a stinky mess.
In another trial, 19 babies were shown the same Monet and Picasso paintings they had seen before in color, but this time they saw them in black-and-white (thanks to the wonders of Photoshop). Once again, the little ones still went for Picasso over Monet.
Cacchione says she's previously observed that infants are fascinated by abstract paintings, like Picasso's. "What surprised me was that the preference was not connected to colors."
The Picasso paintings featured bold, vivid colors and sharp contrasts while Monet's had softer hues and subtler contrasts.
Although Cacchione admits she can only speculate on why infants were partial to Picasso, her hunch is "they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system."
When asked how parents could put some of these findings to practical use, she suggested, "Maybe we should decorate young infant's toys with patterns including bright contrasts and not with less contrastive calming colors."
Perhaps that may inspire a new generation of artists.