Your parents’ dream


Dear Artist,

A friend phoned and brought my attention to a study done at the Harvard Medical Center. It seems that nurture, not nature, is the big factor in the making of creative genius. Talent and genius are not inherited. These were the findings of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, the principle author of the study. Thirty years of research concluded that creative intelligence is due largely to parents’ own unfulfilled dreams of high creative achievement. Researchers used Nobel Prize laureates, Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners, and other cultural and literary awards as evidence of literary genius. These were measured against eminent persons in non-creative occupations. Less than 1% of the eminently creative types had eminently creative parents. This compared, in one example, with 16% for non-creative folks who turned out to have one or both parents in the same profession.


“Doing Laundry” c.1963
paint on wood, 16 x 23 3/4 inches
Folk Artist Clementine Hunter (1886–1988)

Older studies — notably the work of 19th century psychologist Sir Francis Galton — had concluded that talent and genius were inherited. The founder of the Eugenics movement, Galton was working with mainly British aristocracy where primogeniture and the continuation of father-son professions were the norm. In the Harvard study, it seems that “being read to or told stories by parents or grandparents” was the most important indicator of future literary stardom.



“Saturday Night” c.1968
oil on board 16 x 24 inches
by Clementine Hunter
American Folk Art Museum

Accepting that visual art achievement is a little harder to quantify, early art appreciation and parental approval of creative effort may be of the highest value.

Another telephone colleague complained that he received nothing but parental abuse and discouragement in his art. But his tough and contrary nature saw him overcome. He told me how he taught himself what he needed to know, learned to work the system — and won. Maybe he was an exception. Maybe not. Something I’ve noticed though — love and anger are both valid motivators. When there is love there is nurture. Love is the sweeter way.


“Baby Jesus and Three Wise Men” c.1960
painting by Clementine Hunter

Best regards,


PS: “Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” (Robert Henri) “That’s very good, Bob.” (Florence Genn, my mother, when I was about four)

Esoterica: Then there is “non-achievement” by the offspring of the focused and perhaps famous parent. Add to that the mystery of father-son and mother-daughter dynamics. “Coming up to expectations” and “being her own person” enact their toll. In my opinion, general stroking should take precedence over specific management. The “I’m okay, you’re okay,” idea. As well, the thought needs to be gently spread around the dinner table that the future sky can handle lots of stars.

This letter was originally published as “Your parents’ dream” on May 11, 2004.


Clementine Hunter first exhibited her work in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1949. In the 1970s she had major exhibits on both coasts of the United States. She was also invited to Washington, D.C., by President Jimmy Carter for an opening exhibition of her work. Hunter continued to paint until one month before her death at age 101. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Illustrated Book: Clementine Hunter: American Folk Artist by James Wilson

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“Art is, after all, only a trace — like a footprint which shows that one has walked bravely and in great happiness.” (Robert Henri)



  1. ‘The Law of Attraction’ works in Heaven and on Earth… As I understand it, we pick our parents! We have to pass through our karmic lessons, one way or the other. Certainly love and nurturing is preferable, tho. Yet, how greatly do we honor those who have risen, overcome, and triumphed in this life??
    Thanks to Robert, I have had the quote by Robert Henri on my studio door since I read it in 2004.

    • And the two little babies on that suicidal flight deliberately flown into a Swiss mountain, a few years back, what was their karma that they deserved that? The entire group of travels had it coming?

  2. Jamuna Snitkin on

    it is our soul which carries the potentials of our life. However they get brought to the fore is varied, as Robert suggests.I believe energy is the heart of creativity. Heinous is high energy

  3. I’m a published photographer, poet, nonfiction writer; professional opera singer, awarded graphic artist and painter. While I intentionally raised my kids to be creative – simultaneously taught divergent and convergent thinking; detailed observation; non-judgmental open-ended art, writing, science activities – i’ll never know if their present creative careers are the result of genetics, environment or a combination of the two. But their creativity definitely is not a result of my sublimated unfulfilled creative desires.

  4. kathryn taylor on

    I think each person is born with their own gifts. I think those who are nurtured, probably overall, do better. So, anger and overcoming are motivators for those who aren’t nurtured. I found it interesting that Robert said anger was a motivator. I think that it is. There is so much that goes into each person’s individual experience. Also, I like Clementine Hunter’s paintings! I will look for that book.

  5. So Birth Order? Given equally nurtured, I think firstborns are advantaged by forging new territory. If art is among them. I think it’s difficult for later-born siblings to want to also make their way in art, feel competitive…simply chose other directions for their creative juices.

  6. hi in our experience it is a combination of god given gifts/talents/ nurture and self application/discipline driven by love of what one does,, your previous letter noting that an amateur is someone who loves what they do
    as always very interesting mary and david www,

  7. I have always thought that creative “genius” is the flip side of true “genius” I come from a family that has either true genius or very creative kids, I’m smart enough but nothing like my brother and sister. I think it’s largely inherited and can be nutured or not. Two of my kids are quite smart, with one being very creative and the third has a genius IQ but he’s not particularly creative. I think it’s already there whether you use it is up to you.

  8. My mind has been changed in certain ways by the book Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin. It’s not a new book– just new to me. In a persuasive way Plotkin steers us back to our identity as a creature of natural earth– and suggests that we, in our current society have lost something important in our distraction with wealth, power, and possessions. That the creative spirit is stunted by this focus, thrust upon us by our modern environment; by parental values, school requirements, and ego fed competition. He sparked a new interest inside of me in fanning the flames of my humanity–earthy, and adventurous, explorative, curious, and unencumbered with the restraints of civilization’s mechanizations.

    Recommended reading for anyone who wants a different view of the seed of creativity.

  9. Janice Edwards on

    “These were the findings of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, the principle author of the study” Just a note – it should be principal, not principle.

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