Why Picasso Outearned van Gogh

Innovators are more likely to achieve commercial success if they have strong networks.

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Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso had a lot in common. They each had a distinctive style of painting that has become immediately identifiable. Think of “The Starry Night” or “Three Musicians.” In fact, both artists have become sui generis, and their paintings have sold for tens of millions of dollars. But there’s one huge difference between the two painters: van Gogh died a pauper while Picasso left an estate estimated at $750 million. And the reason, according to Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, is that van Gogh was a loner and the charismatic Picasso was an active member of multiple social circles. To use the current vernacular of social networking science, van Gogh was a solitary “node” who had few connections, whereas Picasso was a “hub” who had embedded himself in a vast network that stretched across various social lines.

Berns discusses the vast differences between the two artists in his new book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Harvard Business Press, 2008). According to Berns, “van Gogh’s primary connection to the art world was through his brother, and this connection did not feed directly into the money that could have turned him into a living success.” In contrast, Picasso’s myriad connections provided him with that access to commercial riches. “[Picasso’s] wide-ranging social network, which included artists, writers and politicians, meant that he was never more than a few people away from anyone of importance in the world.”

To be sure, there were many reasons why van Gogh died penniless. His mental illness was certainly a factor (which, incidentally, might have contributed to his being a loner). But the larger point for corporations is this: How do you connect talented loners to networks so that the creativity of those individuals can be tapped? In other words, how do you ensure that your innovative geniuses are less like van Gogh and more like Picasso? In Iconoclast, Berns also presents the cautionary tale of Edwin Howard Armstrong, another creative genius. Armstrong invented FM radio but, according to Berns, he lacked the social networking skills to sell the idea during his lifetime. Years after Armstrong’s death — he committed suicide in 1954 after patent disputes with AT&T Corp. and RCA Corp. as well as a U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruling that went against him — FM radio finally achieved commercial success as the technologically superior alternative to AM for the broadcasting of hi-fi music.

The issue of social networking is all the more important in today’s world of “open innovation,” in which companies are increasingly finding ideas and technologies from external sources that they will then bring to market, as well as selling internal innovations that they do not have any plans to commercialize. Indeed, various Fortune 500 corporations, including IBM, Procter & Gamble and Motorola, have increasingly been participating in an open market for the commercial exchange of intellectual property. In his article “Sharing the Corporate Crown Jewels” in the Spring 2003 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, David Kline, a specialist in intellectual property strategy, argued that patent licensing has become a high-growth industry, with annual revenues topping $100 billion. IBM alone pocketed a staggering $1.7 billion just from its technology licensing activities in 2000. “These revenues came with a 98% profit margin and accounted for roughly 20% of the company’s net income in that year,” noted Kline.

Moreover, the benefits of technology licensing can extend far beyond the immediate financial gains. For one thing, strategic licensing (and effective networking with the right companies) can help transform a nascent proprietary technology into a mainstream industry standard — something that the inventor Armstrong, for all the superior benefits of his FM technology, failed to do in his lifetime.

Evidently, companies like IBM have effective systems in place to uncover and market their technological innovations to the outside world. But that’s not always the case at other organizations. Kline asserts that many companies are sitting on unused patents that could be worth millions of dollars. In fact, Kline coauthored an entire book on the subject, with the catchy title Rembrandts in the Attic: Unlocking the Hidden Value of Patents (Harvard Business School Press, 1999). The book provides solid, practical advice for any organization that wants to participate aggressively in this new era of open innovation. In retrospect, though, perhaps a more appropriate title for the book would have been Van Goghs in the Attic.

— Alden M. Hayashi


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Comment (1)
I love art, i think Van Gogh was great,
however, Picaso knew how to mingle with people and make a name for himself, it is a good that we have online art galleries today.