Any Fool Can Paint a Picture, But It Takes a Wise Person To Be Able To Sell It

Samuel Butler? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. But digitization and the internet have upended so many domains, e.g., music, photography, graphic art, and books. Now there are artists raising money on Kickstarter. Apparently, you cannot simply create a work of art; you must personally market and promote it. I’m trying to recall a statement by the controversial nineteenth century novelist Samuel Butler. Here is my vague memory:

Any fool can create a piece of art. Only a wise person can sell it.

The cogency of this adage has grown over the years. Can you tell me what Butler actually said?

Quote Investigator: Butler did make a remark of this type about painting. The statement was published posthumously in a book titled “Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler”. The introduction explained that Butler filled a sequence of notebooks over a long period of time with miscellaneous jottings: 1

Early in life Samuel Butler acquired the habit of carrying a Note-Book and of writing down in it anything he wanted to remember; it might be something he heard someone say, more often it was something he said himself. Or perhaps it was the germ of a passage in whatever book he happened to be writing at the moment.

Butler consolidated material on small notebooks by copying it to larger notebooks, and he sometimes revised his writings. The adage about painting was the following: 2

ART NOTE
Any fool can paint a picture but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it.

The above text was written in a notebook sometime between 1883 and 1887, and it may have been revised sometime between 1897 and 1898. Butler died in 1902, and the notebook extracts containing the quotation were published in 1934.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The remark was included in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar: 3

BUTLER, Samuel, 1835-1902, English novelist and satirist.
Any fool can paint a picture, but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it.

The expression was remembered by Paul Dickson in 1980, and he placed it in his collection titled “The Official Explanations”: 4

Butler’s Marketing Principle. Any fool can paint a picture, but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it. (Samuel Butler.)

In conclusion, Samuel Butler did make a comical remark about artistic salesmanship. He wrote the statement in a notebook that was published after his death.

Image Notes: Samuel Butler portrait by Charles Gogin. Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. Reproduction of public domain artwork. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. Copyright expired. All three items from Wikimedia Commons. Cropped, retouched, and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1934, Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler, Chosen and edited by A. T. Bartholomew,”Art Note”, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 5, Published by Jonathan Cape, London. (Questia)
  2. 1934, Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler, Chosen and edited by A. T. Bartholomew,”Art Note”, Quote Page 175, Published by Jonathan Cape, London. (Questia)
  3. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Samuel Butler, Quote Page 44, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  4. 1980, The Official Explanations by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 30, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified on paper)