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Claude Monet - One of the Greatest Artists

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Claude Monet was one of the most influential painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Paris in 1840, Monet studied art at an early age. He started creating caricatures of local figures and politicians and selling them when he was 10. He began taking private art lessons with Eugène Boudin, studying oil painting and plein air techniques. Monet spent a great deal of time on the beaches of Normandy, painting and experimenting with different techniques. It was here that he met and befriended fellow artists including Édouard Manet, who would go on to become an influential artist in his own right. Monet has often been credited with founding the Impressionist movement, however, there were several artists exploring this technique. Monet created the painting that gave the technique its name. Impression, Sunrise was the title of a painting in a Paris exhibit that was reviewed by art critic Louis Leroy. Leroy was not a fan of the work and wrote a scathing review of the exhibition, calling the Impressionist work “more unfinished than embryonic wallpaper”.

Monet embraced the term Impressionist and applied it to describe himself as an artist. Like many artists, he struggled financially while establishing his reputation and creating a market for his work. After a failed suicide attempt and the death of his first wife and muse, Camille, Monet threw himself into his work, vowing never to be stuck in poverty. He persevered and by the late 19th century enjoyed commercial success and he financial gain that comes with it. Monet used his financial windfall wisely, purchasing a home and land in Giverny. He planted extensive gardens which served as inspiration for his works for four decades. Today, Monet’s work continues to inspire budding artists and admires alike. His works hang in galleries and museums throughout the world and is reproduced extensively in everyday objects such as calendars and screen savers. Monet’s life and his work, holds important lessons for today’s businessman.

1. Experiment with Like-Minded People

When Monet was a young man living in Paris he befriended and began working with a group of artists that were exploring new and different techniques of painting in oils. The body of work these artists created was characterized by loose brush strokes, layers of color and texture and a somewhat abstract depiction of the scene or subject matter. Collectively, the artists where known as the Impressionists, a term derived from the title of one of Monet’s works. Impressionist artwork suggests a scene rather than depict it in great, realistic detail. This painting method was quite innovative for its time and not often well received by art critics and the general public.

Imagine Monet and his contemporaries sitting in a Paris salon, sipping wine and critiquing one another’s work. Imagine them asking ‘what if’ questions regarding the use of color, the thickness of brush strokes, the methods of capturing light in a scene. Now imagine them working together on the banks of the Seine, applying these ideas, breathing life into their paintings as they stretch the boundaries of conventional oil painting.

Modern business leaders can take a page from Monet’s book. Today’s business leaders face many challenging problems and traditional solutions may no longer work to resolve them. Business leaders are finding that they may have to experiment before they find the solution to their problem. Working with people who think like they do may help them brainstorm ideas and develop new and innovative solutions to problems. Problems such as shrinking markets, financial instability, and employee cynicism are challenges that business leaders didn’t face just a few years ago. Traditional solutions may no longer be applicable to these problems.

Employee cynicism leads to a negative attitude that affects employee productivity. Negativity in a business is like a cancer; it erodes morale and feeds a downward spiral, sparking increased negativity and pulling more employees into the cycle. In the past, a manager or leader could offer the employee a higher salary or promotion to motivate him into better performance. In the days of shrunken profit margins, that option may no longer be available. How then can a leader break the negativity cycle before it breaks the business? Research has shown that employees who are reward motivated aren’t always looking for more money. Often it is something small, public acknowledgment of a job well-done, that is enough to put them back on track and reignite their ‘fire’ for their jobs. Leaders facing these types of challenges may have to experiment to find the prize that motivates their workforce.

2. Turn a Negative to Your Advantage

When he was asked to title a painting for a catalog of an art exhibit, Monet told the curator to call it Impression, Sunrise. The exhibition was reviewed by an art critic who was less than enthusiastic of the work. He wrote a scathing essay titled “The Exhibition of the Impressionists” where he stated that among other things, the painting “was less complete than embryonic wallpaper.” This essay, and the painting that inspired it gave the new technique its name and the artists working in this style embraced the term Impressionist.

The article was meant to be an insult. Monet, however, found it to be a fitting description for his work and his technique and enthusiastically incorporated it into his own discussions about his work and his style. Monet could have let the negative critique influence his work in such a way that he returned to the accepted and traditional methods of painting of the Old Masters. He didn’t, choosing instead to continue working in his Impressionist style.

It is a fact of life in business as well as art, that innovative leaders may face negative critiques of their work. Often, negativity originates from a lack of understanding. When a new challenge, product or solution is proposed, it is common to meet resistance. It is the business leader’s job to ‘sell’ the idea to employees or clients to bring them around to the leader’s way of thinking. When faced with these types of challenges the leader would do well to remember Monet’s example. When faced with lemons, make lemonade.

3. More Doesn’t Always Mean Better

When building a business, a leader often has many tools at his disposal. Some leaders get caught up in the euphoria of launching a business, and rush to buy the latest equipment to set up their new enterprise. Having lots of tools and equipment is nice, but many leaders overextend themselves on tools rather than take the time to apply them to the problem at hand.

Monet created many beautiful paintings while working with a limited color palette. He created his work through a thorough understanding of how to use each color in his palette. Monet spent his entire career learning, experimenting and refining his technique of manipulating paint to create illusion and capture light. Many people believe Monet set up his workstation and started slapping paint on a canvas. Nothing could be further from the truth. He studied his scenes and his subjects. Each brush stroke, each dab of paint was added to the canvas as part of a deliberate, studied plan. Monet used his tools, brushes and paints, to capture an impression of a scene. He maximized the potential of his tools by understanding exactly how to use them and how they worked together to enhance the final work.

Modern business leaders need to understand Monet’s example. While it is desirable to have the right tools for the job, it is not always necessary to have every single tool in the modern businessman’s toolbox. Human beings are conditioned to be gatherers. It’s hard-wired into our DNA from the days when our ancestor scavenged for food. This conditioning shows itself in the modern office as well. Business leaders may no longer be gathering food but they may have a desktop and a laptop computer, at least one mobile phone, a pager, a tablet computer or other digital devices that they use to manage not just their jobs, but their lives. Research has shown that most people under-utilize the true capacity of their devices and often have multiple devices that, if used to their full potential, duplicate the work of other devices.

Tablet computers for example are not just for playing Angry Birds. They are used for note taking during meetings, photo sharing on vacations, checking e-mails during off hours, and as a music player in an office. They are e-readers, calculators, calendars and mobile phones. With the right app, a tablet computer can replace almost all of the digital and electronic devices people have come to rely on. This only works, however, when the user understands the full potential of the device and applies it. Business leaders need to follow Monet’s example. Understand the tools you have and you can do more work with fewer tools. In today’s tight economy, doing more with less is not just a smart business practice, it’s a sound financial one as well.

4. Look at All the Angles

Impressionist artists, including Monet, were more concerned with capturing moments in time rather than creating realistic renditions of the scenes they painted. Impressionists often painted the same scene over and over, varying the time of day and the weather conditions to give the illusion of change. Monet painted the same subject, not only at different times of day but also from different points of view. He believed that painting in this manner changed the viewer’s perspectives of the scenes they were viewing. These alternate perspectives led to what Monet called his ‘series’ paintings. The Haystacks and Water Lilies series are among some of the most famous paintings in the world.

Business leaders can use Monet’s example of looking at different angles in their own work. Many business persons face complicated and complex problems, especially in today’s tough economy. Today’s leaders face different challenges than their predecessors and the tried and true solutions may no longer be applicable to meeting them. Business leaders need to be creative in their thinking and problem solving. They need to examine a problem from many angles and study possible solutions from each angle. A one size fits all to solving business problems no longer works. Business leaders may have to try multiple solutions or combine various solutions to meet their challenges.

Successful business leaders think creatively. They look for problems and solutions beyond the obvious. They are proactive rather than reactive. They are inclusive, seeking counsel from other business leaders and the employees in their organizations. People who are removed from the problem often have a different perspective and may shed new insights into possible solutions. Monet understood that looking at the same scene from different angles changed the viewer’s perspective. Today’s successful business leaders understand this principle as well.

5. Never Give Up

Monet faced many hardships during his career. His work was not well-received by art critics or art patrons. He was partnered with Camille Doncieux, who served as his muse and model, for much of his early career. Facing financial hardship, Monet fell into despair after the birth of his first child and attempted suicide. His suicide attempt failed and he married Camille and continued painting. He had a work accepted to an exhibition that ultimately changed how he defined his method and his career. Monet received a scathing critique of his work, but rather than fall back into depression, he continued painting, embracing the insult, Impressionist, for both himself and his working style. Camille died just a few years after Monet started building his reputation and gaining a following for his work. Heart-broken with grief, Monet could easily have given up. Instead, he vowed never to suffer poverty again and threw himself into his work. He went on to create a large body of work that is even more popular today than it was when the artist was living.

Monet’s perseverance in the face of adversity has much to teach today’s business leaders. He faced many personal and professional challenges in his life. Poverty, depression, ridicule, grief, any of these obstacles could have proved to be insurmountable challenges, yet Monet stayed true to his vision as an artist. It is a fact of life that the modern business man or woman will face many challenges in their personal and professional lives. Some of these difficulties may have devastating financial, emotional or physical consequences. Business leaders need to build a resiliency to not just everyday small problems, but also bigger problems that have long term effects on companies.

Problems and challenges often separate people into two categories: winners and whiners. Those that fall in the winner’s circle are willing to face the problems head on, working toward solutions rather than giving in. Successful business leaders have a never surrender attitude. They are willing to stick with the problem until they’ve found a solution. They are willing to see opportunity where others see only adversity. It is this willingness to see beyond the difficulties of the problem that give them the drive to succeed in business.

Those in the whiner’s circle, however, see only the problem. They don’t realize that the challenge they face is a learning opportunity. They see only the difficulty and the pain of failure. They become overwhelmed with thoughts of how hard things are that they get themselves mired in negativity. They see only the climb up the mountain instead of the view from the peak. Rather than apply themselves to a solution, they wallow in complaints and self-doubt. The whiners never learned what Monet did; when faced with adversity, never give up.