When Painters Get Together They Talk About Where You Can Buy the Best Turpentine

Pablo Picasso? Jean Renoir? Garson Kanin? Apocryphal?

turpentine14Dear Quote Investigator: Critics discuss abstruse theories of creativity and engage in esoteric scrutiny of aesthetics while artists are primarily concerned with the practical. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification. Here is a statement that makes a similar point:

When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.

Did Picasso really say this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a comparable expression located by QI appeared in a 1966 book by the screenwriter and director Garson Kanin who ascribed the words to Picasso: 1

Picasso says that when art critics get together they talk about content, style, trend and meaning, but that when painters get together they talk about where can you get the best turpentine.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1969 a Kentucky newspaper published a profile of Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon during which Kanin used the expression, but he did not credit Picasso. Instead, he ascribed the remark to the well-known director Jean Renoir who was the son of the celebrated painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir: 2

Says Garson, “Jean Renoir once told us that when his father’s friends used to come to the house — all the distinguished French painters of the time — they never talked about grand theories of painting; they talked about where to get the best turpentine”

In 1971 a newspaper in Grosse Pointe, Michigan reprinted and credited the excerpt from Kanin’s 1966 book with two minor changes: (1) “but” was capitalized” (2) the word order of the phrase “where can you get the best turpentine” was changed to the smoother “where you can get the best turpentine”: 3

Picasso says that when art critics get together they talk about content, style, trend and meaning. But when painters get together, they talk about where you can get the best turpentine.
-Garson Kanin, “Remembering Mr. Maugham”

In 1972 “The Courier-News” of Bridgewater, New Jersey published an article about the local theater scene and relayed the following comment: 4

Speaking is Robert Slawson of Somerville, veteran actor, musician and recently-turned director.

“I think Picasso said it best: ‘When art critics get together they talk about style, trend and meaning. When painters get together, they talk about where you can get the best turpentine.’

In 1996 “New York Magazine” published a version of the saying and pointed to “Life” magazine as the source, but QI has not yet found support for this source claim: 5

In the early sixties, Pablo Picasso was solicited by a reporter for Life magazine for his opinions on the differing approaches to art of artists and art critics. When art critics get together, replied Picasso, they talk about abstract matters–things like shape, line, significant form. “When artists get together,” he continued, “they talk about where you can buy the best turpentine.”

In 2014 a critic writing in “The Gainesville Sun” of Gainesville, Florida suggested that famous painters in Paris discussed the best quality turpentine: 6

In Paris in the late 1880s the art supply shop of Julien “Papa” Tanguay was an unofficial center of the Paris arts community, and the future of modern art depended on it.

On any given afternoon you might find Tanguay drinking coffee with major painters like Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec or newcomers like Gauguin and Van Gogh, discussing the best turpentine and arguing about beauty.

In conclusion, Garson Kanin attributed remarks of this type to both Pablo Picasso and Jean Renoir. Hence, the situation is somewhat confusing. Also, the saying seems to trace back to Kanin’s comments because QI has not yet found any substantive independent evidence. Perhaps future research will provide greater clarity.

Image Notes: Portrait of Pablo Picasso by Juan Gris circa 1912; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Bottle label for turpentine circa 1920.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1966, Remembering Mr. Maugham by Garson Kanin, Quote Page 45, Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1969 November 2, The Courier-Journal, Section: The Courier-Journal and Times Magazine, The Imagination and Indestructibility Of the Kanins by Susan Lydon, Start Page 49, Quote Page 55, Column 1, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1971 September 23, Grosse Pointe News, “who, where and whatnot” by Whoozit, Quote Page 34, Column 6, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. (Accessed digitize.gp.lib.mi.us on July 11, 2016)
  4. 1972 December 30, The Courier-News, Local theatre alive and well, thank you: Varied playbill set to continue, Quote Page D2, Column 1, Bridgewater, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1996 September 30, New York Magazine, Section: Theatre, Talent: In the Details by Randall Short, Quote Page 76, Published by New York Media, LLC. (Google Books Full View)
  6. 2014 July 27, The Gainesville Sun, Region’s cultural resources are isolated, unorganized by Ferdinand Lewis (Special to The Sun), Page Number Unspecified, Gainesville, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)