“But You Did That in Thirty Seconds.” “No, It Has Taken Me Forty Years To Do That.”

Pablo Picasso? Mark H. McCormack? James McNeill Whistler? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A rapidly created artwork may still be quite valuable. An anecdote illustrating this point features Pablo Picasso and a pestering art lover. Would you please explore whether this tale is authentic or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of the Pablo Picasso vignette located by QI appeared in the 1984 book “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School” by Mark H. McCormack who was the powerful chairman of a talent management company. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It always reminds me of the story about the woman who approached Picasso in a restaurant, asked him to scribble something on a napkin, and said she would be happy to pay whatever he felt it was worth. Picasso complied and then said, “That will be $10,000.”

“But you did that in thirty seconds,” the astonished woman replied.

“No,” Picasso said. “It has taken me forty years to do that.”

Picasso died in 1973; hence, the above citation provides only weak evidence. Interestingly, a thematically similar remark was made by the well-known painter James McNeill Whistler during court testimony in 1878. Whistler was asked by a lawyer about the stiff price he had set for an artwork he had created in two days: 2

“Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!”

“No;—I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”

If the Picasso story is apocryphal then its creator may have been inspired by the Whistler anecdote. Alternatively, if the story is authentic then Picasso’s response may have been influenced by a familiarity with Whistler’s response.

More information about the Whistler quotation is available here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1990 “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia published an article about comedians who tailored their performances to audiences of business people. Campbell McComas was a successful entertainer based in Melbourne. He employed a version of the Picasso tale to justify his substantial fees. The time specified was “10 minutes” instead of “thirty seconds”: 3

He illustrates this with a story about Picasso (“not that I compare myself to Picasso”). A woman asks the artist for a napkin on which he has been doodling. Picasso says it will cost 40,000 francs. “But it only took you 10 minutes,” she says. “Madame,” he replies, “it took me 40 years.”

In 2001 Mark H. McCormick retold a more elaborate version of the anecdote. A diner approached Picasso in a restaurant in Spain and insistently asked for a sketch on a napkin. The artwork’s price was changed from $10,000 to $100,000: 4

“Fine,” said Picasso, and taking a charcoal from his pocket made a rapid sketch of a goat. It took only a few strokes, yet was unmistakably a Picasso.

The man reached out for the napkin, but Picasso did not hand it over. “You owe me $100,000,” he said.

The tourist was outraged. $100,000? Why, that took you no more than 30 seconds to draw!”

Picasso crumpled up the napkin and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “You are wrong,” he said, dismissing the man. “It took me 40 years.”

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current knowledge. QI suspects that the anecdote is apocryphal. The late date of the earliest instance combined with the existence of Whistler’s similar testimony greatly reduces the plausibility of the tale. This judgement may change if new evidence is discovered by future researchers.

Image Notes: Detail of artwork by Pablo Picasso circa 1914 titled Head (Tête), cut and pasted colored paper, gouache and charcoal on paperboard. Portrait of Pablo Picasso in front of his painting The Aficionado circa 1912. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Neal Whitman whose analogous tale about a logo created with a few strokes led QI to initiate work on this topic. Further thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Josh Kramer, and Janice Chu whose tweets about the Picasso anecdote led QI to finish formulating this question and performing this exploration. Additional thanks to discussants Dan Goncharoff, Wilson Gray, and James A. Landau.)

Notes:

  1. 1984, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark H. McCormack, Section 3: Running a Business, Chapter 11: Building a Business, Section: Charge for Your Expertise, Quote Page 169, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1890, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James McNeill Whistler, Chapter: The Action, Quote Page 3 thru 5, John W. Lovell Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1990 September 22, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: Good Weekend, Laughing All the Way to the Bankers by James Button, Start Page 10, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 2001 April 10, Star Tribune, Success Secrets: Don’t sell short when setting your price by Mark McCormick, Quote Page 34, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers.com)