Palette, Paper, Fifty Three

In 1855, Gustave Courbet, a well-known French painter and early exponent of the realist art movement, created his enormous (and said to be unfinished) masterpiece The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life. The painting was a visual representation of an artist’s life.

On one end of the painting you have those who live the everyday life: beggars, priests, merchants, the masses, the disinterested commons, the rich and the poor. On the other side are Courbet’s son, his muse, philosophers, art lovers and critics. According to art literature, these images were based on real people, many of Courbet’s upper-class friends and part of his everyday life. Among them are George SandCharles Baudelaire, Champfleury, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, art collector Alfred Bruyas and husband-and-wife pair François Sabatier and Caroline Unger. In the middle of the painting is Courbet, with a painter’s palette in his hand, pointing out the complex, almost parasitic interplay between his two worlds.

Recently one of my favorite founders and now dear friend Georg Petschnigg, the co-founder of FiftyThree (the company behind Paper app and Pencil), told me that a friend had pointed to Courbet’s painting and suggested he should name his company “Palette.” With a palette artists have everything they need to create within arm’s reach, that reach being roughly 53 centimeters. While “Palette” didn’t make the cut, Georg said “FiftyThree” made perfect sense, as it defines the space to create. It is such a wonderful and artistic backstory to a company focused on products for creation and creativity.


Georg’s introduction sent me down a Google search rabbit hole. Courbet’s paintings were very much the equivalent of modern-day documentaries — or at least that is the conclusion I came to. What’s more interesting: his complex relationship with the two halves of society. An art blogger points out that “Courbet himself inhabited two worlds at the same time: while he had relation with the lower-class people to paint his works, those who admired and paid for them were the other, the upper-class people.” And another writing about the painting mentions that “Courbet used his paintings to create strong statements about the times he witnessed and the happenings in his world at large — and at small.”

And now sitting here late at night in New York City, I am wondering if The Painter’s Studio is a metaphor for our modern society, applied to any aspect: reality television, investment banking, politics or commerce. In our Silicon Valley terms, in the center we have a creator, or founder, if I may. On the left are those the entrepreneur has to take care of in order to succeed, those who live the everyday life. And on the right is the money, glamour, power, media and the spectacle of technology. Spheres of influence, circles of inspiration, at the center of which is a painting of the future, a future that does not yet exist.

—May 9, 2015, New York City