Lessons from Monet: Impressions of Innovation

Innovation Excellence

I did not set out to chronicle the innovative characteristics of the great painters (my previous writing was on Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings), yet somehow I ended up following precisely that path as I read a new book by Ross King on Claude Monet’s famous Water Lilies. In Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, King examines the events in Monet’s life that surrounded the creation of one of his most famous works, the series of eight paintings of water lilies that are on display at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The paintings, also known as the Grande Decoration, were part of a major project that Monet endeavored to complete near the end of his life.  Monet donated these works to the French government to be put on display in Paris in 1927.  The canvases were large and visually stunning, resulting in a display that is one of the most popular destinations in Paris for lovers of art.  One art critic, writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, said of Monet’s waterscapes that “[f]or as long as mankind has been around, and for as long as artists have painted, no one has ever painted better than this.”  King’s story of the challenges Monet faced in creating his final masterpiece resonates for the modern innovation practitioner and by exploring how Monet worked throughout his life, students of innovation can derive lessons that they can apply to their daily efforts to find new ways of thinking to solve problems.

A Man of the Soil

Monet did most of his work at his studio in Giverny, where he created a famous garden that provided subject matter for many of his most famous paintings.  According to King, visitors to Monet’s home in Giverny would find the painter “in shirt sleeves, suntanned, his hands black with earth.”  King noted that “[i]t must have seemed appropriate that this greatest of French landscapists, the man who so intuitively interpreted the country’s rural delights, should have looked like a robust, weather-beaten, hardworking man of the soil.” Indeed, some visitors “compared him to, or mistook him for, a sailor or sea captain.”  Part of the reason for Monet’s rough appearance was the fact that he liked to paint outdoors (en plein air), which exposed him to the elements.

However, Monet’s work in his garden was more than simply the act of being outdoors to paint. Monet deeply understood the bio-mechanics of his garden, specifically how the various plants and soils and water features interacted and how their appearance changed over the course of the day, week, month, season, and year. By getting his hands dirty in working in the garden, he was better able to capture the essence of each scene in his paintings.  King writes that Monet “knew how the ground felt, how the plants took to the soil, how their leaves bent, and how the light reflected off the water.”

For the innovation practitioner, this is a reminder of the importance of becoming deeply ensconced in an area of work in order to develop new thinking about that topic. It is not sufficient to simply study or examine a topic from a distance. One must dive in deeply and immerse oneself into a subject in order to understand fully the various attributes of that topic. Only by gaining this deep understanding can the innovator apply the various tools in his or her toolkit to develop insights into how to make improvements in an area.

Create a Garden

There is another aspect of Monet’s famous garden at Giverny that is worth discussing. Not only did Monet spend time working in his garden and getting his hands dirty in the soil, but he also used the garden as a controlled environment within which he could master his overall approach to painting.  Early in his career, Monet had painted pictures of larger scale outdoor scenes or motifs, ranging from the seascapes and cliffs at Etretat, to the fog-shrouded Thames River in London, to the haystacks near his home in Giverny, to the gothic cathedral at Rouen.

All of those locations contained elements that were tough for him to control, particularly in contrast to the relative isolation of his garden at Giverny. As King observes, “by the end of the century Monet abruptly abandoned these patriotic and quintessential French scenes of the countryside [and…i]nstead, his subjects became even more circumscribed as he turned almost obsessively, and at the expense of all else, to his garden.”  King notes that this behavior mirrors the injunction of the great French Philosopher Voltaire, who stated at the end of Candide that “’Il faut cultiver notre jardin (it is necessary to cultivate one’s garden).”

King writes that “Monet proceeded to do precisely that: he cultivated his garden, whose Japanese bridge, rose alley, weeping willows, and water lilies – none of which was evocative of the French countryside or the soul of the French race – would provide, over the next quarter of a century, material for some three hundred paintings.” The garden was a world of his creation, almost a small-scale, simulated world in which he could master his technique. For the innovation leader, the lesson here is a reminder of the importance of simulation and scale modeling as a means of generating new and improved ideas about a subject.

For the modern innovator, the small scale may be a laboratory setting or even a whiteboard in a conference room where one can work unencumbered by the challenges that working on a larger scale would entail.

Sometimes the eye can see things on a smaller scale that one has missed when trying to view the overall picture. Breaking a challenge into component parts is a well-known technique for driving innovation, so we should think about cultivating the gardens of our ideas just as Monet cultivated his garden at Giverny.

Capture Fleeting Observations

Monet was a master of depicting color and light, but his technique for arriving at these depictions was based on more than a single, snapshot image of an environment that he was trying to capture.  In other words, Monet did not create his masterpieces by showing up at a location, observing the perfect scene at the precise moment, recording that scene, then going home to complete his painting. Rather, each work was the result of an iterative process in which Monet, as he told an English visitor to his studio, was attempting “to render my impressions before the most fugitive effects.” Indeed, as King observes, “[r]ecording the fugitive effects of color and light was integral to Monet’s art.”

Monet would set up his easel “in front of Rouen Cathedral, or the wheat stacks in the frozen meadow outside Giverny, or the windswept cliffs at Etretat on the coast of Normandy […and] would paint throughout the day as the light and weather, and finally the seasons, changed.” Since, as King notes, “objects changed their color and appearance according to the seasons, the meteorological conditions, and the time of day, Monet hoped to capture their visual impact in these brief, distinctive, ever-changing moments in time.” Monet dubbed these shifting waves of light and atmosphere surrounding objects the envelope, and he dedicated himself to chasing these fleeting moments in order to achieve what he considered to be “the impossible.”

Monet claimed that lighting effects changed every seven minutes, which forced him to work quickly to capture each image.  His technique involved using multiple canvases simultaneously which, in the outdoor conditions in which he painted, proved to be a challenging task.  At Ertretat he worked on three canvases at the same time, all the while fighting off sea spray and wind. In a poppy field near Giverny, Monet worked on four canvases simultaneously.  In London, while painting the Thames River, Monet had as many as 90 canvases in various states of image capture.  Interestingly, although Monet would start his canvases in the outdoors, they would all be finished in detail once he returned to his studio.

Innovators thinking about Monet’s style of working on multiple canvases at once should focus on the importance of capturing fleeting observations as part of their work.  Monet knew that tiny changes would occur in quick increments and that finding just the right combination of light and angle could result in the perfect image he was trying to create, or capturing the “impossible.”

An innovator working on a project might be bombarded with hundreds of ideas about how to solve a problem but within all that noise it is important to be able to find the signal that represents a true, innovative solution to the problem.

The perfect solution may appear at a time when the innovator is tired or frustrated and one may miss it, so paying close attention is crucial.  In this manner, Monet’s technique of performing a little bit of work on each captured scene may be a worthwhile approach in that by fleshing out some of the details of each idea that comes one’s way, the innovator may be more likely to identify the one that is truly worth a further investment of time.

The Importance of Passion

Although Monet’s paintings are typically renderings of tranquil, bucolic outdoor scenes, the painter himself struggled with inner torments.  King observes that “Monet could be volatile and bad-tempered at the best of times, but when his work at his easel did not proceed to his satisfaction – lamentably often – he flew into long and terrible rages.” Monet’s anger flowed through to his canvases, and one of his relatives “witnessed him committing ‘acts of violence’ against [the canvases], slashing them with a penknife, stamping them into the ground or thrusting his foot through them.” Monet was also known to have set fire to his canvases. Addressing his temper, Monet told a journalist that “[m]any people think I paint easily, but it is not an easy thing to be an artist; […] I often suffer tortures when I paint; […] It is a great joy and a great suffering.’”

Gustave Geoffroy, author of a well-received book on Monet’s life and times, described Monet as a “tortured, obsessive artist who pursued his dream of form and color ‘almost to the point of self-annihilation.’” However, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, one of Monet’s closest friends, recognized the artistic and creative power in Monet’s rage. “Keep up this howling,” Clemenceau said to Monet, “because it is what you need to paint […and i]f you were happy, you would not be a true artist since it’s necessary for your reach to exceed your grasp.”

While I would not encourage an innovation practitioner to slash his or her works with a knife, passion is an underestimated source of inspiration for the innovator. When a person is deeply engaged in pursuit of a solution to a problem, that person will find himself or herself constantly thinking about the problem both during and after work hours. That passion and desire to solve a problem is a truly human trait, and it can be very valuable in terms of helping an innovator sort through various approaches to the problem. It is often said that great innovations come from the frustrations of inventors who, faced with the same problem over and over, become fed up and resolve to fix the problem once and for all. This resolution, in the form of passion, is what Monet exhibited in his work and is what the modern innovator can leverage to inspire new thinking.

Surround Oneself with Great Works

At his house in Giverny, Monet exhibited an impressive collection of art from his peers including “a Degas bather, three Pissarro landscapes, four works by Edouard Manet, and two watercolors by Eugene Delacroix.”  Monet also owned two bronze sculptures by Rodin as well as paintings by Renoir.  Monet possessed 14 works by Cezanne, whom he considered to be “the greatest of us all.” Monet thus sought to surround himself with the greatest creations of his peers, rather than shying away from those creations or focusing solely on his own works. Yet at times when Monet was struggling with one of his canvases, he sometimes would place a sheet over the Cezanne paintings in his studio, stating that he was unable to work in the presence of such a “genius.” Monet stated that he “felt a pygmy at the foot of a giant.”

Today’s innovation practitioner could mimic Monet’s example by surrounding himself or herself with displays of great innovations of the past or present, whether pictures of innovators, advertisements for revolutionary products, or physical representations of groundbreaking products.  If one has a lab, workroom, or office, these types of displays can be truly inspirational, even if from time to time one is forced to cover these works like Monet did, so one does not feel overwhelmed by the greatness of these discoveries.

Learn to Fail

Perhaps the most overused phrase in innovation is the mantra of “learning to fail.” Nearly every innovator talks about his or her failures along the road that led to eventual discoveries and successes.  However, the reason that this phrase is so frequently used is that it is so often a critical part of the innovation experience, and in the case of Monet that is true as well. At an early stage in his career, Monet tried to attract attention from the public by working on a large-sized painting known as a grande machine.  The name grande machine comes from the pulleys and wires needed by the artist to manipulate a large canvas, and Monet started work in 1865 on a 13-foot-tall by 20-foot-wide painting titled Luncheon on the Grass, which was intended as an homage to Edouard Manet’s masterpiece of the same name. Monet never finished the project, and only remnants of the painting exist today, after it had been rolled up and put away once he abandoned it.

Monet’s next large painting, an eight-by-seven-foot work titled Women in the Garden, was rejected by the jury in the 1867 Salon in Paris.

Yet failure was not limited to the early stages of his career. As late as 1917, Monet sent four smaller paintings of his gardens to Paris to the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, hoping to earn some income to help sustain him while he worked on the Grande Decoration. None of these four paintings found a buyer which was, according to King, “an indication of how artistic tastes were changing in the aftermath of the war […as] appetites, attitudes, and artistic practices had shifted dramatically by the time the war ended.” It is possible that in the process of working on the failed large canvases, Monet learned the skills he would need to complete his water lily masterpieces, which were very large and complex paintings in and of themselves. Likewise, his perseverance in the face of failing to find a buyer for his four garden paintings in 1917 may have given him the fortitude to overcome even more challenging experiences in the next decade, such as the major problems with his eyesight, surgery, and the deaths of many people close to him.

For the innovator, the lesson here is perseverance and dedication to one’s work efforts in the face of failures, even if those failures are repeated over and over again. Had Monet given up either on large size paintings, or paintings of his gardens, the world would never have been able to experience the masterpieces of his large paintings of water lilies at the Orangerie.

Change Perspectives 

One of the most intriguing aspects of an Impressionist painting is the difference in appearance when one is standing very close versus standing further away from the painting.  Standing up close, one can see the energetic individual brushstrokes and patches of color that, from afar, assemble into a more meaningful image. Yet the genius of the artist who created the work can also be understood by viewing the painting from very close. Indeed, King observes that “Impressionist canvases were not meant to be seen at […] close range.” One critic, King notes, stated that “the apparently ‘crude simplicity’ of an Impressionist painting actually disguised a sophisticated visual experience.” By standing a little farther back from the canvas, he continues, “[r]elations between masses of color begin to be established. Each part falls into place, and each detail becomes exact.”

In fact, during Monet’s lifetime the topic of exactly where one should stand to appreciate an Impressionist painting came under discussion, with the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro devising a formula “whereby the viewer should stand at a distance measured at three times the diagonal of the canvas.”  For the innovation practitioner, the advice here comes in the form of thinking about how varying one’s position between close and farther away can adjust the way in which one views the idea overall.

In being very close to an idea or process, the innovator can see the equivalent of the individual brushstrokes and the intricate details that go into making the idea or process work. Yet from that perspective, one might be missing the larger picture associated with that idea or process, and it may be necessary to back away from the idea or process to see it in the context of other things. In other words, the innovator should think about varying one’s perspective to see what insights it can reveal about the idea or process.

Apply Knowledge to Solve Problems

Although this anecdote doesn’t apply specifically to Monet’s work, it does involve some of Monet’s fellow artists and an innovation they developed during World War I, a critical event in Monet’s life.  King writes that “[a]t the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, a forty-three-year-old artist named Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scevola, a former student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was serving in the artillery when his unit – all dressed in their bull’s-eye-red pantaloons – came under heavy enemy fire.”  Guirand de Scevola, King continues, stated that “[i]t was at this moment that, vaguely at first, then more and more precisely, the idea of camouflage came to me [for t]here had to be […] a convenient way to disguise not only our unit but also the men who served in it.” Guirand de Scevola used his skills as an artist to experiment with shape and color to find ways to make his colleagues and their equipment less visible to the enemy, resulting in the development of camouflage.

By early 1915, the French Army created the first camouflage team, consisting of thirty artists. This is a classic “eureka” moment of innovation, referred to more eloquently in French as a coup de foudre (bolt of lightning), where the innovator was struck out of the blue by a new idea, spurred on by an intense, life-or-death need to solve a real problem facing him. While we do not want the modern innovator to face similarly threatening situations, this anecdote does serve as a reminder that sometimes one can think for hours, days, and weeks about how to solve a problem then, suddenly, the idea will appear without much warning.  Perhaps the thinking that Guirand de Scevola had been doing before the coup de foudre laid the foundations for his ability to develop camouflage, but in the end, the idea hit him all at once, as sometimes is the case with innovation.

The Value of Abstraction

At the very foundation of Impressionist painting was the notion that the artist was creating an impression of a motif, rather than trying to render it in excruciating detail to match real life.  As such, King writes, Monet “was always strictly faithful to the spirit – his impression – of the motif, but his stock-in-trade was not a nearsighted concern for accurately documenting the minute details of the physical objects he painted.” Monet was not averse to taking “liberties with the visual facts for the sake of a better composition.”

King notes that this occurred in his famous paintings at Etretat, where he changed the position of the giant stone arch (much to the consternation of a modern visitor trying to align the painting with the real scene), as well as his paintings of a bridge in Argenteuil. To Monet, King observes, “[f]aithfully depicting architectural features was less important […] than creating a striking composition.” This philosophy is perhaps best summed up by Monet himself in an anecdote he told to a visiting American painter.

Monet said that when one goes to paint, one should “try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever.” Monet stated that one should see the composition as “a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow.” Monet went so far as to wish that “he had been born blind then suddenly regained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him.”  For the innovator, the lesson here lies in the value of abstraction as a technique for improving one’s understanding of an idea or concept in the pursuit of new thinking.  The innovator should not be afraid to stray from the literal interpretation or representation of a concept. If there is something in a concept or topic that is out of place and is causing it to be more difficult for the innovator to arrive at new thinking, then the innovator should, like Monet, paint it out of the picture.

By ignoring extraneous elements and focusing more intensely on the characteristics that matter more deeply, the innovator can arrive at a better overall approach to generating new thinking to solve problems.

Learning Never Stops

Deathbed anecdotes can sometimes end up being apocryphal but are worth exploring nonetheless. In December 1919, August Renoir was bedridden with pneumonia at his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer.  Renoir supposedly called for a pencil from his nurse so he could do a sketch of some flowers that were at his bedside.  According to King, “[l]egend has him finishing the drawing (or sometimes a painting) and handing the pencil (or brush) back to his nurse while uttering his last words: ‘I think I am beginning to understand something about it,’” then dying shortly thereafter. Another French painter, J.-A.-D. Ingres, grabbed a pencil while on his deathbed and proceeded to create a sketch of a nearby portrait, telling those around him that he was “learning.” The Japanese artist Hokusai stated that he all of his works before the age of 65 were not “worth counting,” and at age 73, 90, and 100 he would achieve various milestones in terms of understanding art.

The lesson here for the modern student of innovation is a reminder that no matter how successful we become in the field, we should always possess the mindset that we are learning, even late in our careers.  If Renoir, one of the greatest painters of all time, recognizes on his deathbed that he is only “beginning” to understand something about art, then a mid-career, corporate innovator should demonstrate humility in terms of mastering his or her field of expertise.  Moreover, the innovator should always be willing to accept feedback, teaching, or commentary from others, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, because one can never know from where a new innovation will emerge.

The Value of Iteration

Monet was a fan of Japanese prints, particularly those of gardens and landscapes, such as Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. King notes that Hiroshige’s prints included “weeping willows draped over lakes, irises sprouting by the water, and festoons of cherry blossoms by a Japanese bridge,” and we see many of these images repeated in Monet’s work from his garden at Giverny. Monet leveraged many of the characteristics of Hiroshige’s art, including “strong diagonals, asymmetrical compositions, and unexpected angles of vision, such as slanting or downward-looking points of view.” In addition, Monet and Cezanne adopted the Japanese approach of creating multiple views of a single scene, mirroring that created by Hokusai and Hiroshige in their (separate) series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The Japanese artists created dozens and dozens of views of the same scene in varying conditions.  Monet applied this approach to many of his masterpieces (such as the wheat stack paintings), and Cezanne did the same in his thirty-six views of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence.

For the innovator, this example serves as a strong reminder of the importance of branching out within one’s area of expertise to find new thinking. The crisp, detailed Japanese woodblock prints that Monet used for inspiration were not much like the fluid, wavy Impressionist paintings of the era.  he Hiroshige prints had sharp lines and fine details, whereas the Impressionist works were softer. Both were bold in their use of color, but it would be impossible to confuse the two types of artwork. Nonetheless, Monet found inspiration in the Japanese artwork, particularly in the technique of repeatedly capturing of the same image in varying viewing conditions.

Focusing intensely on the subject of the artwork while treating other factors as variables (according to King, the variables included “weather, seasons, […] time of day, and with numerous different scenes occupying the foreground”) allows the artist to develop a deeper understanding of the original subject matter (the part that remains the same in all of the paintings).

An innovator trying to develop new thinking could focus specifically on a single aspect of the problem and then repeatedly analyze the issue over and over again while varying other attributes to see which set of conditions result in the best outcome. Indeed, that is what the artists were trying to do with the “thirty-six views” approach, and the results were impressive.

Physical Challenges Can Lead to Breakthrough Thinking

Many artists suffer from afflictions and various maladies that render their work all the more impressive in terms of what the artist had to overcome to achieve greatness.  King writes that “Pissarro suffered numerous eye infections that badly disturbed his vision, while Edgar Degas had experienced sensitivity to light” since his late thirties, resulting in a blind spot in his vision by his fifties. Monet, too, had terrible problems with his eyesight by the 1920s and underwent several painful procedures to try to correct the problem. These procedures occurred while Monet was trying to finish the Grande Decoration and, at one point, these physical infirmities caused him to stop working completely for a period of time.

When his vision returned, Monet decided to destroy several canvases that he felt he had ruined due to his poor eyesight.  It is not known whether Monet ever regained 100% of his visual capabilities as he completed much of the famed water lilies paintings. As a result, the masterpiece we see today in the Orangerie was completed by someone who had experienced severe challenges with his eyesight for many years and had not necessarily overcome those challenges during his work on these canvases towards the end of his life.

The question becomes whether his weakened eyesight enabled him to see in a way that was above and beyond what he had experienced previously in his life.  When one looks at the paintings in the Grande Decoration, the colors seem to burst from the canvas and the images soften in a way that perhaps a fully-sighted Monet might not have been able to accomplish.  The Setting Sun in particular exhibits these characteristics and stands apart from Monet’s earlier works.  For the modern innovator, we would not want to focus on physical infirmities but, rather, on how unique capabilities can drive new thinking. Each innovator will have capabilities that he or she may not even be aware of, whether it is something that carried over from one’s youth or something that one engages in as a hobby.

The key is for the innovator to leverage these unique capabilities in a way that can be applied to the creation of the new thinking and innovations, even if at first glance the unique capability has little to do with the subject at hand. After all, the most important physical skill for a painter to possess would be eyesight, so the last place one would expect to find innovation would be in a painter who has physical challenges with his or her eyesight.

New Thinking is not Exclusive to the Young

King argues that Monet’s later works were perhaps some of his best., as is often the case with famous artists. King notes that the German Professor Albert Brinckmann published a book in 1925 in which he examined the progression of works by various artists late in their lifetimes.  In Late Works by Great Masters, Brinckmann observes that some artists “achieved powerful and distinctive styles as they grew old, creating works markedly different from, and arguably more adventurous than, those of their youth or middle age.” Brinckmann chronicles this effect in the works of Donatello, Michelangelo, Titian, Poussin, Rubens, and Rembrandt.  Other scholars have also noted the development of a “sublime style” in the later works of various artists, with “an increasing abstraction and an exuberantly expressive handling of paint.”

Monet’s later paintings, impacted by his diminishing eyesight and fits of rage, were, according to King, “[l]arger, bolder, more experimental, visionary, and abstract.”  King posits that perhaps only Michelangelo and Titian even came close to the power of Monet’s work at such a late stage in life. The cause of this, King concludes, may be the realization that “[a]s the body falls apart […] an eternal light pours through.”

For the innovator, this can serve as a reminder that one’s age should not be the sole arbiter of one’s ability to develop breakthrough new thinking.

Particularly in the current era with the startup/Silicon Valley mentality where new and young is always better, the innovator should remember that even the most wizened, grizzly veteran can be the source of new ideas and innovations. The innovator can look to veteran colleagues and workshop participants to be the ones who can be, like Monet in his later life, “bolder, more experimental, visionary, and abstract.”

Working Through Tragedy

Death stalked Monet in his lifetime but he was able to see his way through those tragic events and turn his sadness into artistic expression. After the tragic death of his stepdaughter Suzanne Hoschede-Butler in 1899, he painted several famous views of the Japanese bridge in his garden at Giverny as well as a famous series of London scenes. The death in 1914 of his son Jean led him to conceive of the large-scale water lilies project (the Grande Decoration), and it should also be noted that he completed much of his work during the horrific World War I, during which he saw many of his fellow artists and citizens go off to war, with the loss of life and casualties associated with that conflict.

In all of these cases, Monet chose not to be defeated by death around him but, rather, to take the challenge in stride and apply himself even more intensively to his art. That is not to say that Monet didn’t suffer at all from these deaths. Rather, he suffered tremendously and stopped working for a period of time after each one.  Yet when he resumed work, he did so with a passion that he did not have before the tragedy. As is the case with physical infirmities, we don’t want to associate innovation work with tragedy.  However, we should again seek to follow Monet’s example in the abstract in terms of his ability to apply himself with perhaps greater passion after encountering a tragedy. For the innovator, one might encounter a failed project or other major setback, and while it is normal to react negatively to that news, in the long-run, the innovator needs to dust himself or herself off and dive into the next challenge with even more vigor than the previous challenge.

Never Be Satisfied

When the Grand Decoration canvases were first displayed to the public, several of the visitors noted that the canvas titled Morning had a distinctive scar on the far-right side.  Prime Minister Clemenceau told the group that that damage was the result of a slash from a knife, stating that “Monet attached his canvases when he was angry [a]nd his anger was born of a dissatisfaction with his work.”  Monet, Clemenceau proffered, “was his own greatest critic.”  Clemenceau went on to note that Monet had destroyed over 500 of his canvases in his “quest for perfection.” This is a difficult realization for someone who was so talented at his work that even his most gifted peers recognized his sheer genius. According to King, the sculptor Rodin visited the Brittany coast for the first time and, upon seeing the oceanscape live and in person, stated, “Oh how beautiful – it’s a Monet!”  We as innovators should be our own greatest critics, and although I do not recommend sharp objects in workspaces, we should not be afraid to challenge ourselves to strive continually to improve our innovations.

One’s Work is Never Done

One of the canvases in the Grand Decoration, The Setting Sun, contains an area in the lower right-hand corner that is unfinished, exposing the bare canvas to the viewer.  King speculates that Monet either “wished to emphasize the provisional and incomplete nature of his efforts […] or simply could not bear to bring his labors to an end, and to let the sun finally set on his Grande Decoration.”

Though I am by no means a scholar or art historian, I think the combination of the title of the work and the struggles that Monet went through to complete the Grande Decoration indicate that Monet intentionally left this section incomplete for two reasons. First, from a personal standpoint, he did not want to apply the last brushstroke to the canvas as he saw it as a metaphor for his own life, which was in the waning years and he knew he did not have many sunsets left to see. Second, from the standpoint of the viewer of the painting, he wanted to send a message to future generations that one’s work is never really done, no matter how well-acclaimed or masterful a performance.

Like Renoir with the pencil on his deathbed, Monet knew that work would always continue and progress was always needed and was indeed possible.  For the innovator, this serves as a reminder that we can continually improve even our most innovative solutions.Because innovation tends to thrive on “eureka” moments in which we achieve some great discovery or insight, we tend to forget the iterations that both got us to that magic moment as well as the iterative work that is always needed to take that discovery to its logical conclusion. Like the blank canvas to Monet, an innovator should always be thinking about what comes next and not dwell too much on what one has already accomplished, even if it is a masterpiece.



Ross King, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).




image credit: bigstockphoto.com
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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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