When There’s Anything To Steal, I Steal

Pablo Picasso? Françoise Gilot? Carlton Lake? Apocryphal?

art08Dear Quote Investigator: Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. He was also open to the ideas and approaches of other creators. The following remark has been attributed to the master painter:

When there’s anything to steal, I steal.

Is this statement authentic?

Quote Investigator: There is a substantive citation supporting this quotation. In 1964 “Life with Picasso” by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake was published. Gilot was a long-time companion and muse of Picasso; they had two children together. She was also an independent artist and writer. Her coauthor, Lake, was an art critic.

Gilot described a visit that she and Picasso made to the fellow artist Henri Laurens who seemed delighted with the meeting. Gilot concluded that Laurens was especially welcoming because he was not in his studio. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Most of the painters and sculptors Pablo called on were a little uneasy when Pablo was in their ateliers, perhaps because Pablo often said, “When there’s anything to steal, I steal.” So they all felt, I think, that if they showed him work they were doing and something caught his eye, he would take it over but do it much better and then everyone else would think that they had copied it from him.

Gilot was with Picasso primarily between 1944 and 1953; hence, the 1964 book was published after a decade delay. Yet, her coauthor was convinced that the quotations presented were accurate. The information in her testimony that Lake was able to cross-check was correct: 2

. . . I have been continuously impressed by her demonstration of the extent to which that much abused term “total recall” can be literally true. Françoise knows exactly what she said, what Pablo said, every step of the way for the ten years and more that they spent together. The direct quotations from Picasso are exactly that.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In spring 1959 a journal article titled “The Mystery of Pablo Picasso: Harlequin and the Minotaur” by Cyril Barrett was published, and it included a thematically related remark about artistic appropriation attributed to Picasso although no citation was provided: 3

. . . Picasso’s technique is so masterly that he cannot paint a dull picture or even draw an uninteresting line. And every one of them is quite unlike any other (‘To copy others is necessary but to copy oneself is pathetic’). That is Picasso’s great weakness; he is driven on by the demon of originality. Aesthetically he is always exciting, often satisfying and sometimes (in the still-lifes and landscapes) pleasing. But this almost always presupposes that, in the case of the human figure, one prescinds from the subject-matter.

In September 1959 the prominent English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote a piece in “The New Yorker” that included an instance of the remark given above: 4

In this respect, as in several others, Brecht resembles Picasso, who once remarked, “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”

In 1964 “Life with Picasso” was released and the authors ascribed the quotation under investigation to the famous innovator as noted previously:

. . . Pablo often said, “When there’s anything to steal, I steal.”

In 1991 “The New Yorker” printed a note about a lecture delivered at the Museum of Modern Art by the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx who employed an instance of the saying about copying: 5

“I hate formulas,” he said, and, quoting Picasso, he announced that it was “much better to copy other people than to copy oneself.” If the rapt faces that filled the auditorium were any indication, he also has bona-fide groupies, aged from about eighteen on.

In conclusion, writing in a 1964 memoir the long-time companion of Pablo Picasso stated that he often employed the quotation under examination. There was also some evidence that he used the saying specified in the 1959 citations, but that evidence was indirect.

Image Notes: Portrait photograph of Pablo Picasso circa 1904 via Wikimedia Commons. Empty picture frame from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Illustration of burglar from OpenClips at Pixabay.

(This inquiry was motivated by the statement “Good artists copy; great artists steal” which has been attributed to Pablo Picasso. An analysis of that remark is available here.)


  1. 1964, Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Part VI, Quote Page 317, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1964, Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Section: Foreword, Quote Page 9, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1959 Spring, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 48, Number 189, “The Mystery of Pablo Picasso: Harlequin and the Minotaur” by Cyril Barrett, Start Page 37, Quote Page 47, Published by Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1959 September 12, The New Yorker, Section: The Theatre, The Theatre Abroad: Germany by Kenneth Tynan, Start Page 90, Quote Page 106, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker Archive of Page Images)
  5. 1991 June 17, The New Yorker, Goings On About Town: Art, Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, Column 2, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker Archive of Page Images)