Can a painting really be worth $80 Million dollars?
It boggles my mind, but in 2008, a painting of Water Lillies by Claude Monet was sold at auction for $80 Million Dollars. Claude Monet had been dead for over 70 years at that point, but even while he was alive–his paintings were in high demand and selling for large amounts.
The man’s fame was only superseded by his skill.
We’ve all grown up hearing the name Monet, mostly in books and movies for me, but I didn’t really become interested in his work until I saw another of his water lilly paintings on display at The Met. Now, I’m no art connoisseur, but seeing his painting in real life made an impression on me, even though I can’t explain why.
So I did a little bit of research on the artist. I wanted to know what all the hype was about, and what made his art so valuable.
What I found was a useful lesson in how to become a true professional at your art. I think anyone who builds things or creates art should incorporate some of it into their own process. I’d like to share these insights with you.
Now, for those of you not familiar with Monet, his best known works are of outdoorsy things. He got paid so well for his art that he was able to buy a huge estate in the North of France. He had a staff of gardeners that would make his gardens nice and pretty. He would import flower seeds from all over the world so that his garden looked like no other garden in the area. And no, this isn’t my first point, the key to great art isn’t having a better manor than the Joneses.
My first point is that Monet became a master through the concept of hyperfocus. Those water lillies in the painting that sold for $80 Million, he painted those water lillies over 90 times. For a span of 20 years, from 1899 to 1919, he made 90 separate paintings of the water lillies. You would think the guy would get bored of painting the same thing over and over, or that the public would get tired of seeing them, but no, this all made him more popular. He painted lots of other things over this time, but it would never be a one-off.
His focus on one subject over dozens of paintings allowed him to start seeing details no one else could see. It’s almost like the X-ray powers that Superman has in the comics. His paintings rose to a whole nother level because of the hyper-focus.
Now I ask you, what small part of your craft are you half-assing? Are you taking the time to repeat and deconstruct your process like a boxer jabbing hundreds of times a day just to find the perfect striking angle?
Another important factor in Monet’s popularity was how he embraced his style. Yes, he painted works about nature, and he did everything over and over. But he did this for a stylistic purpose even more than for mere practice. He would paint the same subject from different angles each time, and at different stages over the day. It would become its own study in the passing of time.
The critics LOVED him for this.
And he became the most popular of the painters labeled Impressionists. He was proud to be a member of this group. Proof that style and substance don’t need to cancel each other out.
As it was noted in his Wikipedia entry: “He began to think in terms of colours and shapes rather than scenes and objects. He used bright colours in dabs and dashes and squiggles of paint. Having rejected the academic teachings of Gleyre’s studio, he freed himself from theory, saying “I like to paint as a bird sings.””
But let’s not forget, although this approach was considered ‘going against the grain’ at this time, It doesn’t mean he couldn’t work within the rules. This man studied in Paris, he learned the “rules” of painting, and then he proceeded to smash those rules.
That’s the third thing I wanted to point out about his process. Being a trendsetter doesn’t excuse you from studying the rules. Creating something new means breaking the rules through boldness, not through ignorance. The message gets lost in translation if your art is simply covering up laziness, as opposed to showing off your need to rebel. Laziness isn’t sexy, rebelliousness is.
If it’s not yet clear to you, becoming great at whatever you do, is not an easy thing. For Monet, this required him to hyperfocus on a single subject over years and years.
Secondly, it meant he had to essentially pigeonhole himself within a label, then learning to love that label, and to leverage that label.
Then the third thing that helped Monet become the best was that he first mastered the rules, THEN he mastered the ways in which to break them. It doesn’t have the same effect in reverse.
It’s a huge sacrifice, putting all this time into a craft. And speaking of sacrifices, Monet himself realized the huge price to be paid for genius. His wife was suffering from Cancer at the young age of 32, and when the cancer took her life, Monet stood at her deathbed, but instead of crying or grieving like a normal person would, all he could was get to work then and there. He made a painting of his dead wife as she lay there.
Monet confessed to his friend Georges Clemenceau that his need to analyse colours was both the joy and torment of his life.
“I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours according to an automatic reflex!”
Now you understand the makings of a master.