Doug de Forest discovered his daughter could paint when he was staining wood one day in his garage. Autumn asked if she could help, so he set her up with a brush and a piece of plywood and got back to work. By the time he turned round again, the five-year-old had created something “like a Rothko”.
That piece of wood now hangs in the kitchen of the de Forest home, in a quiet cul-de-sac on the sun-blasted perimeter of Las Vegas. There is an unmistakable talent in the hard lines, the slabs of colour and the sense of solid and void. “It was absolutely designed,” says Doug. “There’s no way it was by chance.”
Wherever you look around the cool and spacious house, there are other pieces by Autumn, the US’s foremost painting prodigy. A Picasso-esque canvas featuring a shapely figurine — modelled on her mother Katherine — hangs just inside the front door. In the corner is the inscription, “Autumn 2008”. She was six.
There is another striking piece by the back door — a wax pastiche of the Grant Wood masterpiece of a glum-looking couple in front of a house. Instead of a pitchfork, the man is holding a huge crayon. It is called “American Graphic”, and Autumn was nine when she made it.
Today she is a smart and pretty 14-year-old who cannot sit still. During our hour-long interview she jumps up several times to fetch books and other knick-knacks. In between posing for pictures she scrambles over furniture, skids around in her socks and cuddles Ginger, her “incredibly intelligent” seven-year-old poodle.
So far, Autumn’s paintings have grossed about $7m in sales, according to Doug, who is descended from a line of artists connected to the Met in New York. He says he has set aside funds for college — Autumn has her eye on Yale — and has put mechanisms in place to prevent her from blowing the rest.
Yet it is hard to imagine his only child careening out of control. She says she admires Taylor Swift much more than Miley Cyrus. In her free time she hangs out with children from the church down the road, where she volunteers.
Still, this is a delicate phase for the de Forests. Doug and Katherine are wondering whether to put Autumn in high school, or to keep her with tutors at a mostly online academy. Autumn, for her part, wants to go to a “brick-and-mortar” school from September. “I think it’s important to be able to be exposed to real-life situations,” she says. “Home schooling is great for travelling but you’re not experiencing what other kids are experiencing.”
Her parents worry about committing her to schools in Las Vegas, which are reckoned to be among the least distinguished in the US. But they also worry that her upbringing so far — bouncing from exhibition to masterclass to primetime television show — has been just a shade too unorthodox.
Katherine says she has been reassured by Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s book on successful people and the sacrifices they make. “As long as the process remains healthy, I can support it, as a mother,” she says.
On the evening before I meet Autumn, on a warm and windy Saturday, she had just flown in from a tour of Ohio. That Monday she was due to visit the White House as a guest of Michelle Obama to be inaugurated into a group of artists mentoring children in bottom-ranked schools.
I ask her if the schedule ever gets too much. Not a bit of it, she says. “I love this, it’s so much fun. I’m a rollercoaster that only goes up.”
If her lack of regular schooling has been a disadvantage, it is not obvious. Autumn reads a lot and widely. Her current favourite is The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’ compendium of case studies of patients with brain disorders. She loves old TV shows such as I Love Lucy, classic Hitchcock films such as Rear Window and the Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times. In her studio — which Doug built in the back garden, next to the garage — she listens to blues while she paints. That or National Public Radio.
She clearly has a good ear. In her British-themed bedroom, where she drags me to show off posters of Big Ben and black cabs, she produces three distinct accents. The first sounds like Adele, the second Keira Knightley, the third Dame Judi Dench. They are all pretty much flawless.
Children without siblings often seem precocious, says Doug, since they tend to get involved in whatever their parents are doing. Doug says when he was growing up in a Jewish family in New Jersey, he was rewarded for being sharp, engaged and thinking on his feet. Autumn says she knew what she wanted to be by her “late fives”. By the age of seven she was shifting paintings for thousands of dollars apiece. Aged nine, she started home schooling; aged 11, she signed with Park West Gallery, which claims to be the world’s biggest art dealer by sales volumes.
She recalls weekly trips to Barnes & Noble, where she was allowed to pick a book. She once chose a big one on Dalí, and remembers it bumping the roof of the car as she read it on the way home, strapped in the back seat. Another time she was struck by a Jackson Pollock reproduction in a children’s book called Olivia. The Pollock-inspired painting she produced after that, aged seven, hangs above the stove.
Other works over the years show the influence of Warhol, Matisse, Lichtenstein and O’Keeffe. Autumn’s pop pieces tend to get the highest prices at auction, but she is keen to keep exploring themes and styles. “Once I am labelled, then that point” — she clicks her fingers — “move on.”
Her parents have put their own lives on hold to a large extent, while her star rises. Doug spent 20 years in Los Angeles as a drummer and composer before moving to Las Vegas in 2003. Katherine was an actress, appearing in TV shows Murder, She Wrote and Baywatch.
Doug is now keen to develop Autumn as a brand. So far he has done “small” deals with American Girl, Gap and Nordstrom, the upmarket department store, which sells Converse high-top trainers bearing a design by Autumn.
He also wants to set up an online portal — working title, “Autumn Bomb” — for children to exhibit and sell their art. What better way for a child from a poor family to start a college fund?
Later, in the kitchen, he shows me a collection of self-portraits produced by a group of children in Autumn’s mentoring programme, which uses materials provided by Park West. Some of the paintings are extraordinarily good, and Doug seems as proud of them as he is of those by his daughter.
Autumn, too, has been moved by what she has seen so far. One of her students in Brooklyn sent her a photo of her portrait hanging on a wall at home. The room is shabby, the plaster cracked. But the pride shines through.
“She made that house beautiful, just through her creativity,” says Autumn. “It’s wonderful to witness.”
Doug is conscious of the advantages his own daughter has enjoyed, born to well-off parents with a creative bent. He bought Autumn all her materials to get her started and built the studio. But, he insists, “I’m the opposite of a ‘stage dad’. “I want to be a facilitator, to make hurdles go away.”
When his daughter presented her first show at the age of five — part of an “Art in the Park” event in Boulder City, Nevada — Doug made a game of it, telling her she was a cheetah and the passers-by gazelles. Her job was to pounce before they got away.
Autumn became “a different person” after that, he says. She slept that night still wearing her exhibitor’s name badge. “To be appreciated and recognised is a powerful, powerful thing.”
Autumn chooses a trophy awarded to her on her first trip outside the US in November last year when she was invited to Rome to receive the International Giuseppe Sciacca Award for Painting and Art. The award, bestowed by the Vatican, is given to people under 35 who show talent in the fields of knowledge and art and who are also role models for their communities. Autumn gave a nerveless acceptance speech — in Italian — and presented a painting to Pope Francis. “I said, ‘when I come back to Vatican City you gotta take my painting out of the closet and hang it back up’,” she says. “He got a kick out of it; he was so sweet and generous and kind.”
Ben McLannahan is the FT’s US banking editor
Photographs: Gabby Laurent