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10 Life Lessons from History's Most Famous Artists

03/02/2014 01:24 EST | Updated 05/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Everybody's a critic.

Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist painter, was mercilessly ridiculed by critics when he exhibited with the Impressionists. Claude Monet's paintings were called "formless, unfinished and ugly." Amedeo Modigliani was so unhinged by criticism that he threw his sculptures into the Seine.

Aside from the art of perseverance, what can the greatest artists of all time teach us? Here are my top 10 takeaways:

1. Show up. Artists teach us to put ourselves on the line. Consider that Cézanne, Monet, El Greco and Gaughin -- among countless other artists -- endured scathing criticism during their lifetimes. Courageously, they continued to give the world all they had. If they stopped creating, we would have been robbed of some of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Showing up means having the bravery to bare your soul.

2. Praise is not a prerequisite for greatness. Everybody loves a pat on the back, and nobody likes a kick in the teeth. But the reality is that one of the only certainties about creation is that it will arouse criticism. This is not pessimism, my friends. It's a fact. "To avoid criticism," Aristotle wrote, "say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." Alternatively, dream, explore, invent and imagine! One must create -- not stagnate -- to be great.

3. Don't be a critic. It requires a lot less courage to tear something down than it does to build something up. Instead of censuring people who are trying to innovate, why not create something instead? Or, failing that, why not at least applaud the artistic efforts of others? The internet has spawned herds of cloven-footed critics hiding behind the anonymity of their laptops and screen names. Be a force for good, not deprecation.

4. Cultivate Curiosity. Pablo Picasso said "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." I love being in the presence of children because, like artists, they see beauty everywhere, even the most mundane. The next time you go for a walk, open your eyes to the wonder that is all around you. Part of the innate artistic sensibility of children is their insatiable curiosity and their openness to be enchanted.

5. Throw away your eraser. We live in a society obsessed with perfection. Are you? But artists teach us that mistakes are the pathways to discovery. Don't be afraid to make them. Forget what you were taught in school. Go ahead, boldly break the rules! Colour outside the lines! Remember, some of the greatest artistic and scientific discoveries were so-called "mistakes."

6. Genius takes time. The Renaissance sculptor, painter, poet and engineer, Michelangelo, understood that patience is the linchpin of creativity. So did Leonardo, who was believed to have painted the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1506, and perhaps as late as 1517. Maybe Leonardo was referring to the Mona Lisa when he said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." In our hyperactive world, go against the grain and cultivate the art of patience.

7. Find Your Theo. Everyone needs a cheering section, especially creative types who are subject to the glaring scrutiny of the public gaze. Van Gogh had his brother Theo. Modigliani had Jeanne Hébuterne. Georgia O'Keeffe had Alfred Stieglitz, Christo had Jeanne-Claude and vice-versa. The world can be cruel. Always have at least one cheerleader in your corner who will pick you up and dust you off when the going gets tough.

8. Honour Your Inner World. Our society is excessively focused on the external -- on appearances and public perception. The artist teaches us to honour our inner world. Instead of focusing so much energy on the outside (how's my hair? do these jeans make me look fat?), why not cultivate the gorgeousness that is waiting to be unleashed on the inside? Let's follow Frida Kahlo's lead.

9. Greatness is an aberration. Mediocrity is the norm. Greatness is a deviation. Most artists are classified by society as "weird" or "eccentric." I'm not sure if people confuse eccentricity with creativity, but I like Einstein's insight that "great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

10. Never give up. Just over a century after Cézanne's paintings were derided by critics, The Card Players was auctioned for $259 million to Qatar, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. Of the 50 most valuable paintings in the world, 7 were created by Van Gogh, who sold a solitary painting during his lifetime. Sometimes, we're ahead of our time. But not to worry. The world eventually catches up. In the interim, hold your head high and hold nothing back.

Sadly, many of history's most famous artists died before their work was ever celebrated. Posthumous fame is a drag, and not just the fate of artists, but of poets, philosophers, photographers, writers, scientists and composers. What can we learn from this? The nobility of pursuing your passion as an end in itself, not because of a reward or recognition. Then again, perhaps the pursuit of your passion is more complicated. But that's the subject of another article.

If I could leave you with one last thought about what I have learned from great artists it is this: never let critics hold you back or put you down. If there is a creative spark within you, forget what your detractors might say, be crazy enough to believe you can set the world on fire.

"Unflagging Commitment": Images and Artists' Comments