Analyzing Artistic Innovation: The Greatest Breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century

David W. Galenson

NBER Working Paper No. 12185
Issued in May 2006
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies, Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

This paper considers not only when in their careers the greatest artists of the twentieth century made their greatest discoveries, but also how quickly they made them. The results underscore the dominant position of Picasso and Cubism in twentieth-century art: Picasso alone accounts for the two best three-year periods produced by any artist, and he and Braque account for three of the best five-year periods, all for the work the two young artists did in developing Cubism. Warhol’s innovations in Pop art and Matisse’s development of Fauvism also rank among the century’s most important breakthroughs. In general, identifying the most important short periods of artistic creativity emphasizes the differing methods of conceptual and experimental artists: great conceptual innovators, like Picasso, Matisse, and Warhol, made their greatest discoveries abruptly, whereas great experimental innovators, like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock, made their discoveries more gradually. The finding that artists who innovate early in their lives do so suddenly, while those who innovate late do so more gradually, adds an important dimension to our understanding of human creativity.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w12185

Published: Galenson, David. "Analyzing Artistic Innovation: The Greatest Breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century." Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 41, 3 (Summer 2008): 111-120.

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