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Learning “product Identity” from the Great Masters

By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Executive President of IE University

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the renowned German artist, once referred to his colleague Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) as “the good landscape painter”, a compliment unusual among artists with big egos.

Indeed, Patinir was one of the pioneers of Western landscape painting within the early Flemish Renaissance, back at the turn of the Sixteenth Century. I am particularly attached to Patinir since his oil on wood “Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx” remains as one of my vivid memories from a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid when I was I child, and since has remained as one of my favorite paintings.

I was then impressed by the subject of the work, quite scatological. In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who carried the souls of the death across the Styx lake and brings them to paradise –or to Hell, as seen in Patinir’s painting featured above. In ancient Greece, the tradition while mourning a death person was to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased in order to pay for the ferryman’s service.

But I was particularly impressed by the craft of Patinir’s painting: the intensity of its colors, the deep blue that contrasts with the sharp line of the crepuscular flax horizon. True, the size of the figures is not proportioned, but this enhances the personality of the protagonist.

When reading Patinir’s biography, you may become fascinated at how he ran his workshop from a business perspective and how he cared for a premium positioning of his works. He actively cultivated his own image from the start by signing his early works, not a generalized custom in those days, a fact that reveals his concern for reputation and brand image.

He was also able to adapt to the preferences of wealthy merchant-customers by focusing on subjects that resembled cartography, contained allusions to trade or references to travel, an attitude that reveals his smart orientation to customers.

In addition, he developed a distinctive style, a “product identity”, that is still recognizable today, another competitive advantage.

However, according to some art historians, Patinir was not as prolific as some of his contemporary painters. This is due, first to the fact that he did not have many apprentices in his workshop -apparently only one person- whereas other painters in Antwerp had as many as ten.

Second, he did not produce many copies of the same work at a time when replicating a painting was the only way to exploit economies of scale. It is interesting to note, in comparison, that the workshop of Joos Van Cleeve, located in the same city at that time, produced series of up to twenty eight replicas of the same work. Alternatively, Patinir opted for a differentiation business strategy, enhancing the exclusivity of his works.

Third, Patinir enjoyed a comfortable life since his first wife belonged to a wealthy family and was not probably pressed to work for monetary gain. He probably evolved as a perfectionist, as shown in the style and features of his works.

Managers can learn a lot from the lives of the Old Masters, who were real innovators in their times. Furthermore, attending the Old Masters may enhance the taste for the fine arts and, as the philosopher David Hume suggested, improve emotional intelligence