Four Iconic Quotes Artists Never Actually Said

Ian Shank
Aug 18, 2017 4:14PM
Lucien Clergue
Picasso sur la Plage de L'Hotel, 1965
Odon Wagner Contemporary

“After work I just stayed in,” Andy Warhol scribbled in his diary on July 27, 1978. “Watched 20/20 and instead of saying, ‘In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,’ it was so funny to hear Hugh Downs say, ‘As Andy Warhol once said, in 15 minutes everybody will be famous.’ People on TV always get some part wrong, like— ‘In the future 15 people will be famous.’”

To his credit, at least Downs named the right artist. These days, the internet is awash in a tsunami of spurious quotes that adorn the custom throw pillows, coffee mugs, and tote bags of Pinterest and Etsy. Here are four such “iconic” statements never uttered by the artists who supposedly coined them.

Pablo Picasso

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Some misattributions happen in an instant. Others evolve over generations. In a 1920 essay collection, British poet T.S. Eliot coined the modern version of this now-iconic maxim, averring that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Other cultural figures who have been credited with a similar sentiment include Russian pianist Igor Stravinsky (albeit modified for musicians: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals”) and American novelist William Faulkner. It was Apple CEO Steve Jobs, however, who began attaching Picasso’s name to the aphorism in the 1980s.

But this was hardly the most absurd of the Spanish painter’s many misquotations. In 1952, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote that Paris newspapers were “agog” with reports of a sensational confession recorded in Picasso’s studio. The famed artist had supposedly admitted that, lacking “the courage to think of [himself] as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term,” he considered himself merely “a public entertainer who has understood his times.”

This interview, however, was the product of a satirical novel written in 1931 by Italian author Giovanni Papini. His main character, Goggins, was a fictional half-Hawaiian business tycoon who traipsed the world conducting interviews with the likes of Hitler, Gandhi, Henry Ford, and—you guessed it—Picasso. Beyond duping the Parisian press and the Post, the fallacious quote would later feature prominently in LIFE magazine and The Guardian.

Vincent van Gogh

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

It was van Gogh’s brother Theo, above all others, who supported the Dutch artist through his lifelong psychological turmoil. The brothers’ more than 900 letters between 1872 and 1890 are where van Gogh first penned the most iconic quotes that now bear his name: “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it;” “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together;” “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people;” and finally, on October 2, 1884, “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

There was just one important difference about this last aside. Having recently read Au Bonheur des Dames, Van Gogh was actually quoting another luminary: French novelist and playwright Émile Zola. Theo understood this. One can assume purchasers of this $199.99 inspirational wall hanging probably did not.

Lucienne Bloch
Frida Winking, 1933
Bentley Gallery

Frida Kahlo

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought, there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.”

Rebecca Katherine Martin was 15 when she inadvertently fabricated this now-enduring quote. The confusion began in 2008 when Martin, a Canadian teenager, printed the words over a magazine clipping of Kahlo and sent it to PostSecret—a popular mail-in art website that publishes postcards bearing anonymous secrets. As the image worked its way around the internet, Martin’s words and Kahlo’s face were soon indelibly linked.

Try as she might, there was little Martin could do to correct the record once the image was out. “I cannot pull down those memes one by one and tell each of these people—‘Look, actually you have a totally WRONG idea about Ms. Kahlo,’” wrote Martin. “‘That thing that you think she said was written by a dopey teenage girl from Markham, Ontario.’” Nearly a decade later, you can still have it inscribed on your own custom Kahlo poster for as little as $10.

Leonardo da Vinci

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

The closest approximation of this maxim can be found in one of da Vinci’s surviving notebooks. While ruminating on “the origin of the soul,” the Italian visionary delivers this mouthful: “Though human ingenuity may make various inventions which, by the help of various machines answering the same end, it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous, and she needs no counterpoise when she makes limbs proper for motion in the bodies of animals.”

Not exactly the stuff of high school graduation speeches.

According to Garson O’Toole—founder of the website Quote Investigator, which spawned his recent book Hemingway Didn’t Say That—the earliest version of the five-word quote was actually articulated by playwright and U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce in 1931. It wasn’t until July 2000 that an Italian business executive erroneously attributed the quote to da Vinci, featuring the pithier adage in a multi-page Campari advertisement in the New Yorker. “Assuring accurate ascriptions is not a high priority for advertising copywriters,” O’Toole told Artsy. “Their prime motivation is selling.”

Ian Shank