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12 August 2022

Do “great artists” really “steal”?

A new exhibition exploring how Ingres’ Madame Moitessier inspired Picasso raises questions around art and the anxiety of influence

By Clara Aberneithie

In Room 46 at the National Gallery, London, two paintings currently hang side by side for the first time: Pablo Picasso’s Woman with Book (1932) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Madame Moitessier (1856). The two masterpieces are exhibited in a small room, a few feet apart. Picasso based his composition on Ingres’ portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier, the wife of a rich banker. Looking at these images together, we are encouraged to see the similarities: in their composition, the “finger” pose and their use of mirrors.  

But their differences are even more apparent. Picasso’s brightly-coloured portrait abstracts the scene into its most essential elements: the details in Ingres’ textiles are replaced with blue planes, contrasting rather than complementing the red chair behind. Picasso also makes explicit the subtle eroticism of Madame Moitessier’s bare shoulders – his subject, based on his model and lover Marie-Thérès Walter, who he began a relationship with when she was just 17, is depicted with her breasts visible. Her torso also echoes the silhouette of male genitalia.  

Madame Moitessier by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Photo by The National Gallery

These paintings – which offer parallel examples of sexualised younger women by older, male artists are deserving of study in isolation. But when placed together they pose a question that has preoccupied artists for centuries – that of whether to credit their influencers. Picasso is often said to have proclaimed that “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”, an aphorism quoted by the National Gallery on their website. (Yet he may never have said the line; it may be his original quote; he may have even stolen it.) There remains a debate over what comprises borrowing and stealing in painting. If to borrow necessitates a return, can art really be “borrowed”? And can an idea ever be “stolen”?

The exhibition at the National Gallery, which is free to enter and open until 9 October, includes a quote from Ingres on the wall adjacent to the paintings: “Who is there, among the greats, who has not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.” Picasso’s claim that “great artists steal” is characteristically arrogant, implying that “stealing” necessitates an authoritative use of another artist’s work, positioning his work above artists who “politely” “borrow” and cite their influences. Of course, Picasso is not the only artist to take this approach.  Édouard Manet’s Olympia references Giorgione and Titian; Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes draws from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) resembles the wounded nurse in a scene from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925).

[See also: The conservative case for returning the Benin bronzes to Nigeria]  

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Last summer the Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, explored the relationship between the two artists. It offered a chance to reflect on Munch’s influence on Emin – specifically his portrayals of women as simultaneously strong and fragile. Despite the inspiration Emin found in Munch, her work is unique. It draws just as much on Emin’s understanding of her own body – one which has experienced abuse, impregnation, miscarriage, cancer and surgery. Yet many critics have expressed scepticism around Emin’s emotional engagement. They instead consider her paintings and drawings as the legacy of male-dominated expressionism’s flicks and scrapes. But Munch also drew inspiration from others, including Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh. Yet, Emin’s influencers are discussed more widely than Munch’s. 

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In the contemporary scene, anxieties around influence are growing more pronounced. Earlier this year, the Spanish artist Gala Knörr was criticised for not crediting a work that influenced her painting Young Cowboy Gazing (2022). On display at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Knörr’s portrait is of a black cowboy staring at the viewer over his shoulder. It mirrors a scene in the film Blue by the black Brooklyn artist Dayday.  

As Knörr failed to acknowledge Dayday’s role in the work, she has been accused of plagiarism. Nachela Knox, who worked as assistant director on Blue, told the Rolling Stone that although Knörr’s intentions may have been good, she “further perpetuated the idea of black erasure”. In response, the Guggenheim announced they would exhibit Dayday’s work “alongside” Knörr’s. There is a difference between failing to reference a famous artwork by a white artist and one by a lesser known black artist. When Gentileschi drew from Caravaggio, observers of her work would immediately have seen his influence – here, the cultural context is significantly different. Alexis Hyde, an art curator, says that by omitting Dayday’s influence Knorr is “actively erasing” a black artist.  

The argument that artists have a moral obligation to reference who they take inspiration from comes with countless issues. Artists must decide themselves how to navigate the inescapable tendency to imitate; when to start and stop referencing. To demand citations could compromise the mystery key to many artworks. The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to explain his pieces, despite commentators drawing parallels to Jean Dubuffet and Picasso. In the words of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them”. 

“Stealing” does not deserve the grandeur Picasso supposedly ascribed to it – perhaps this is why the National Gallery printed Ingres’ “nothing is made with nothing” on the walls rather than Picasso’s more famous quote. Artists will always be influenced by other artists – but it’s the way in which they handle their influences that determines the value of their art. 

[See also: How Patrick Nasmyth brought Dutch mastery to Scottish art]

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