category success tech

Impressionism and the 10 Rules of Category Success

Written by Jonathan Simnett

The thing about Category design is that it’s often talked about just in terms of technology businesses.

That’s fine, technology has always changed the world, from the emergence of flint axes and antler picks onwards.  But Categorisation, too, has been changing the world for centuries in diverse ways and there are plenty of lessons from the past for current Category designers. And not necessarily from technology.

David and Goliath

I was reminded of this having just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book `David and Goliath`.  It’s the usual enjoyable Gladwellian description of apparent ephemera that somehow shines a compelling light on current events and gives us unusual insight into modern life and business.


In one chapter, Gladwell tells the story of the rise of the French Impressionist painters.  Like most Brits. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Impressionists, but it struck me that, more than just an example of David versus Goliath, the rise of Impressionism was a perfect example of a successful Category play.

Gustave Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, and many more, were a bunch of men and women with very different backgrounds.  But they were drawn together in France in the mid-19th century by one binding tie.

That was that their style of painting was unlike any other that existed at the time or that had gone before. 

Their approach was clearly `different` – first rule of Category success.

Rule breakers

The middle of the 19th century in France was a time of rapid industrialization, turbulent politics and rapid social change.  Emperor Napoleon III rebuilt Paris and drove the country forward to the modern world. Yet the authority in painting, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, looked firmly in the rear-view mirror, epitomising an old order in art based on classical scenes and dominating what was acceptable in France.

In contrast, The Impressionists defined themselves by dismissing the existing order set by The Salon, a yearly exhibition of curated pictures. They replaced intricate portraiture with dramatic brush strokes, capturing realistic modern scenes rather than those of fable and antiquity, and often working outdoors rather than in traditional studios.

Instead of being muted, their colours were vibrant.  Impressionists constructing their pictures from freely brushed colours that took precedence over lines and contours. In this respect, they were following the example of rebellious predecessors such as Eugène Delacroix and J. M. W. Turner. They were everything the Académie was not.

They broke all the rules – the second rule of Category success.


As their numbers grew, The Impressionists continued to self-define as being the antithesis of the establishment. 

They were a driven bunch of talented outsiders – the third rule of Category success.

Naturally, they wanted to be seen and appreciated. But during the 1860s, as the Impressionists developed, The Salon jury routinely rejected the works submitted by Monet and his friends in favour of works by artists faithful to the Académie-approved style.

Hurt pride aside, the problem was that if you weren’t allowed to exhibit, you weren’t considered a serious artist. The dealers weren’t interested in you and your art would never see the distribution or fetch the prices that would allow you to make an independent living.


The Impressionists couldn’t catch a break. Changing the status quo by working within its boundaries and waiting for something to happen, wasn’t working. Nevertheless, change started, driven with a bit of help from an unexpected, and very much establishment, source.

After the modernising Emperor Napoleon III saw the rejected works of the 1863 salon, he decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was organised.

To drive change be prepared to cooperate with organisations outside your comfort zone – the fourth rule of Category success.


While many viewers came only to mock, the Salon des Refusés drew attention to the existence of a radical new direction in art and attracted more visitors than the regular Salon.  The fuse had been lit – the Impressionists could not now let it go out.

After all, they had started to build their own ecosystem – the fifth rule of Category success.

Burning boats

Seeing a chink of light, the Impressionists petitioned for a new Salon des Refusés in 1867, and again in 1872, but the establishment regrouped, and they were denied.

In the face of this rejection, The Impressionists’ Category design defining moment came in December 1873, when Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Morisot, Degas and several other artists founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (“Company of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”) to exhibit their artworks independently.

To prove their seriousness, members of the association were expected to `forswear participation in the Salon`. There was no going back.

They had burned their boats the sixth rule of Category success.


In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition.  It was held in April 1874 at the studio of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known by the pseudonym `Nadar.` He was another outsider, a pioneer of a tech Category emerging at the same time, photography.

With such impertinence being displayed, again, many people came only to laugh as they had done at the original Salon des Refusés.  And the critical response was, to say the least, mixed with Monet and Cézanne receiving the harshest attacks.

Prepare to be rubbished by those that don’t `get it’ or have something to lose – the seventh rule of Category success.


But they were resilient, by 1886 having organised their 8th Impressionist exhibition. As they grew their numbers swelled to the point Pissarro was the only artist able to show at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions.

Their expanding ecosystem of supporters and patrons including dealer Paul Durand-Ruel played a leading role. Durand-Ruel kept their work in front of the public and arranged shows for the Impressionists in London and New York. This expanded their audience away from the influence of the Académie, re-framing art-appreciators’ expectations in new markets.

The individual artists may have achieved few financial rewards from the Impressionist exhibitions, but their art gradually won public acceptance and support and the reputation of individuals amongst the group grew.

Embrace the long haul and keep going – the eighth rule of Category success.


As they persevered, attitudes to the Impressionists started to change. Renoir (despite his forswearing) even had a great Salon success in 1879. Monet became secure financially during the early 1880s.  Pissarro did by the early 1890s and, by this time, the methods of Impressionist painting had become commonplace in Salon art. Others in the group were not so fortunate, Sisley died in poverty in 1899.

Not everyone succeeds in a new Category, and some will need to pivot – the nineth rule of Category success.


A hundred years later, by the end of the 20th century, the Impressionists had weathered many subsequent forms of modernism and classical revival to become the most popular art movement of all time. Their Category has garnered a disproportionate amount of value in art sales, exhibitions, and rights, let alone space in the public’s consciousness.

Two out of the five most expensive paintings ever sold at auction are Impressionist – Cézanne’s The Card Players and Gaugan’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo – and over half the most requested to be reproduced pictures were painted by Degas, Cezanne, Gilbert, Manet, Monet, Surat and Van Goch,  

In doing so, they have achieved the tenth rule of Categoryestablishing leadership.


As the philosopher, George Santayana, said, in 1905, just as the Impressionists were taking their place in the greats of the art movement ,”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Categorisation has been changing the world for centuries. There are lessons from history for any contemporary Category design initiative in the tech world or anywhere else groups and individuals want to succeed.

Learn from them and ignore the lessons of Category design history at your peril. 

Find more discussion on the lessons of Impressionism and Category design and many other contentious Category issues on The Difference Engine podcast at


Final Study for “Bathers at Asnières” Date: 1883 Artist: Georges Seurat French, 1859-1891

Photo by Art Institute of Chicago on Unsplash

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