Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

Leonardo da Vinci? Clare Boothe Luce? Leonard Thiessen? Elizabeth Hillyer? William Gaddis? Eleanor All? Apple Computer Company? Anonymous?

cave10Dear Quote Investigator: The following aphorism has often been attributed to the brilliant Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Strangely, I have been unable to find any solid source for this ascription. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have been unable to locate this adage in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. The earliest attribution to da Vinci located by QI appeared in 2000. Hence, there is no substantive evidence supporting the connection at this time. Perhaps future exploration will uncover a citation in Italian.

The earliest strong match found by QI employed a different wording to communicate a comparable idea. Clare Boothe Luce was a successful playwright who became one of the first female U.S. Ambassadors. In 1931 she published a novel titled “Stuffed Shirts” which contained the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Yes,” continued Mrs. Gunn, patting Lucile’s hand condescendingly. “I have resolved to grow old, naturally and gracefully, content in the knowledge that the greatest intellects are the homeliest ones, and that the height of sophistication is simplicity.”

A solid match using the same vocabulary was published in a Sunday newspaper magazine by an art critic named Leonard Thiessen in 1946. The prominent French sculptor Charles Despiau had created a work depicting the head of the well-known model Maria Lani. This artwork was “one of the most cherished treasures” of Frank Crowninshield who had been the influential long-time editor of “Vanity Fair” magazine. Thiessen used the adage when he commented on the graceful sculpture: 2

Perhaps Mr. Crowninshield’s preference for the Lani head, by the simple peasant sculptor who was his close friend, proves that the ultimate in sophistication is simplicity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1931 a character in a novel by Clare Boothe Brokaw used the following expression as noted previously. Brokaw later remarried and used the name Clare Boothe Luce: 3

. . . the height of sophistication is simplicity.

In 1934 the “San Francisco Chronicle” printed an article about the upcoming fashion season for clothing. The columnist Ninon wrote a remark that was thematically similar to the one under investigation: 4

The pendulum swings sharply away from frills and fulness and fripperies for fall. Well-dressed women will look more sophisticated than ever before—for of course, nothing but sophistication ever appreciates or indulges in perfection of simplicity.

In 1936 “The New York Sun” of New York City published an article about recent design changes for silverware that emphasized less complexity and ornamentation. The sub-title of the article reflected part of the adage: 5

Modern Designers, Seeking After Sophistication, Get Simplicity.

In 1946 the art critic Leonard Thiessen wrote the following phrase as noted previously: 6

. . . proves that the ultimate in sophistication is simplicity.

In 1949 the “Schenectady Gazette” of Schenectady, New York discussed an article from “House and Garden” magazine about Chinese furniture. The writer was impressed by a sentence from the feature and reprinted it. The words reflected the theme of the adage: 7

“Simplicity that is the ultimate of sophistication plus practicality” says April “House and Garden” of the Far East influence in contemporary decoration, noting that these features are close to our taste today. In a 31-page portfolio, the magazine shows authentic Chinese furniture, ranging from Ming to 18th century, designed for household use.

In 1952 an article titled “Simplicity Marks New Dining Room” by Elizabeth Hillyer appeared in an Illinois newspaper. Hillyer discussed a popular furniture and interior designer named T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. The writer suggested that the designer provided proof of the aphorism: 8

Handsomely simple mats and minimum china and silver service set the table, and one enormous stone carving is the wall’s only decoration.

You may not wish to follow Robsjohn-Gibbings to this degree of proof that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. But a simplification of the old cluttered dining room is improvement to be hailed.

In 1955 the signal postmodernist literary figure William Gaddis published “The Recognitions”, and he included an instance of the apothegm. The ellipses in the following passage were in the original text: 9

—You know God damn well that . . . that humility is defiance, Anselm went on disjointedly.—And you . . . that simplicity . . . simplicity today is sophisticated . . . that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication today. . .

In 1961 an English teacher writing in “The Marietta Daily Journal” of Marietta, Georgia penned an opinion piece that included the following instance: 10

For these parents realize that this child’s life will be much healthier if she waits until early college years to achieve sophistication. The ultimate sophistication is simplicity itself.

In 1971 an Associated Press article about the design of home furnishings echoed the version of the adage written by Clare Boothe Luce back in 1931: 11

The height of sophistication is simplicity, so in a way, the sophisticated market is really going grass-roots.

In 1976 a newspaper article about fashion designer Anne Klein employed an instance of the saying: 12

One point at which the Anne Klein and Oriental philosophies have met before is the belief that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

In 1977 Apple Computer Company created a brochure for its new product the Apple II personal computer. The aphorism was emblazoned on a page of the brochure above the picture of a red apple: 13

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Introducing Apple II, the personal computer.

In July 2000 a multi-page advertisement from the Campari liquor company appeared in “The New Yorker” magazine. The guest editor for the section was an executive named Pietro Logaldo who wrote a short introductory note containing the adage with an ascription to Leonardo da Vinci: 14

As we bask in the full warmth of summer’s embrace we at Inizio takenote of the advice of Leonardo da Vinci who wrote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

In September 2000 the periodical “Investor’s Business Daily” printed a set of quotations under the title “Wisdom To Live By”. The aphorism was credited to the Renaissance master: 15

ON SIMPLICITY
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo da Vinci, painter

In 2002 “The Times” of London published an article about Australian cuisine that discussed popular chefs. The journalist printed the aphorism and credited Leonardo da Vinci: 16

He starts afresh every morning, scrambling eggs, baking coconut bread and pan-frying sweetcorn fritters, proving Leonardo da Vinci’s aphorism that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

In conclusion, this article represents a snapshot of current knowledge and future researchers will probably be able to antedate some of these citations. For now, QI believes that Clare Boothe Luce can be credited with the phrase she used in 1931, and Leonard Thiessen can be credited with the words he penned in 1946. The aphorism should not be linked to Leonardo da Vinci until some justification is presented.

Image Notes: Photograph of a horse from the Lascaux caves; reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. A cropped image of Gua Tewet Tree of Life cave painting. The original image appeared in the 1999 book “Borneo, Memory of the Caves”. The photographer Luc-Henri Fage placed the image in the public domain as recorded on the Wikipedia website.

(Great thanks to Wikicitas, Joseph Brown, and Andrew Old whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who identified the 1955 William Gaddis citation and the linkage to Apple Computer.)

Notes:

  1. 1931, Stuffed Shirts by Clare Boothe Brokaw (Clare Boothe Luce), Chapter 17: “Snobs, New Style”, Quote Page 239, Published by Horace Liveright, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1946 March 3, Omaha World Herald, Section: Sunday World-Herald Magazine, European Intrusion at Morrill Hall by Leonard Thiessen, Quote Page 17C, Column 4 and 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1931, Stuffed Shirts by Clare Boothe Brokaw (Clare Boothe Luce), Chapter 17: “Snobs, New Style”, Quote Page 239, Published by Horace Liveright, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1934 July 29, San Francisco Chronicle, Fall Fashions Will Be Very Smart by Ninon, Quote Page 5S, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1936 October 31, The New York Sun, Table Silver Feels Change by Ethel Walton Everett, Quote Page 15, Column 1, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1946 March 3, Omaha World Herald, Section: Sunday World-Herald Magazine, European Intrusion at Morrill Hall by Leonard Thiessen, Quote Page 17C, Column 4 and 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1949 March 31, Schenectady Gazette, Section 2, East Meets West in New Decorating Trend, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Schenectady, New York. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1952 October 5, Sunday Journal-Star, Simplicity Marks New Dining Room by Elizabeth Hillyer, Quote Page B10, Column 3, Peoria, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1974 (Copyright 1955), The Recognitions by William Gaddis, Quote Page 487, Published by Bard Books of Avon Books: A Division of Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1961 November 5, The Marietta Daily Journal (Marietta Journal), 2 Elements in Culture by Eleanor All (English Teacher), Quote Page 12A, Column 6, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1971 May 10, Mobile Register, Young Designers Sophisticated by Vivian Brown (AP Newsfeatures Writer), Quote Page 2D, Column 2, Mobile, Alabama. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1976 September 19, The Marietta Daily Journal (Marietta Journal), The Outdoor Look for Fall Is Luxurious, Says Klein, Quote Page 3C, Column 2, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  13. Website: Computer History Museum, Artifact description: Brochure from Apple Computer, Inc., Text on brochure: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication: Introducing Apple II, the personal computer”, Date of advertisement: 1977-04, Catalog Number: 102637933, Website information: “The mission of the Computer History Museum is to preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the Information Age”; located in Mountain View, California. (Accessed computerhistory.org on March 31, 2015) link
  14. 2000 July 31, The New Yorker, (Multipage advertising insert from Campari; title: Inizio: Stimulating the Appetite for Food Life and Excitement; sub-section: Editor’s Note; guest editor: Pietro Logaldo), Quote Page 40c, Published by Condé Nast, New York. (Electronic New Yorker Archive of Page Scans)
  15. 2000 September 12, Investor’s Business Daily, Wisdom To Live By, Quote Page 4, Los Angeles, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  16. 2002 October 5, The Times, Article title: Wizards of Oz rip up the rules – The Times Cook, Article author: Jill Dupleix, Quote Page: Weekend 4, London, England. (Access World News)