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.

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  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)

Nothing Can Be Accomplished Without Solitude

Pablo Picasso? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: To accomplish an arduous cerebral task it is necessary to avoid quotidian interruptions and achieve a deeper form of concentration. The remarkable painter Pablo Picasso has been credited with the following perceptive adage:

Without great solitude no serious work is possible.

This quotation is popular, but I have only been able to find it on websites and in recent books and periodicals. Are these the genuine words of the modernist master?

Quote Investigator: In 1989 the prominent Spanish writer Camilo Jose Cela told a newspaper reporter that the remark above was spoken to him by Pablo Picasso. Yet, the conversation between Cela and Picasso must have occurred many years before because the famous painter died in 1973. A detailed citation is presented further below.

A similar statement was made by Picasso in 1932 as reported in the newspaper “ABC” based in Madrid, Spain. The news story was obtained via telephone while Picasso was in Paris. The artist emphasized the pivotal importance of solitude to his work. But his description suggested that solitude was a psychological state that he was able to enter without the knowledge of others. Below was the original Spanish text (English is further below): 1

No se puede hacer nada sin la soledad. Me he creado una soledad que nadie sospecha. Pero el reloj dificulta hoy la soledad. ¿Ha visto usted algún santo con reloj?

Picasso’s thoughts were translated and published many years later in 1960 in “The New York Times”. The text consisted of a single paragraph attributed to Picasso in an article section titled “Ideas and Men”; no source for the words was specified: 2

Nothing can be accomplished without solitude. I have made a kind of solitude for myself which nobody is aware of. Today it’s very difficult to be alone because we have watches. Have you ever seen a saint wearing a watch?—PABLO PICASSO

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1932 June 15, ABC Diario Ilustrado (Madrid), Informaciones y noticias del extranjero: ABC en Paris, (Telephone conversation with Pablo Picasso), Start Page 35, Quote Page 36, Madrid. (Online archive of ABC at hemeroteca.abc.es; accessed December 11, 2015) link
  2. 1960 July 17, New York Times, Opinion of the Week: At Home and Abroad: Ideas and Men, Quote Page E9, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)

Never Permit a Dichotomy to Rule Your Life

Pablo Picasso? Edward L. Bernays?

dichotomy09Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving happiness is often challenging. Some people intensely dislike their work life and attempt to obtain joy elsewhere. There is a quotation that cautions against allowing this type of dichotomy to rule one’s life, and this valuable guidance has been attributed to the famous painter Pablo Picasso, but I have never seen a good citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This advice about avoiding a pernicious dichotomy was formulated by Edward L. Bernays who was an important pioneer in the controversial disciplines of public relations, advertising, and propaganda.

Bernays contributed a short untitled essay to a 1986 book called “Are You Happy?: Some Answers to the Most Important Question in Your Life” compiled by Dennis Wholey. Bernays suggested that colleges should offer a course called “Personal Happiness”, and he emphasized the value of psychological tests to help the job selection process. Bernays also gave the following warning. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I say, “Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.”

QI has found no substantive evidence that Pablo Picasso ever made a matching remark. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Permit a Dichotomy to Rule Your Life


  1. 1986, Are You Happy?: Some Answers to the Most Important Question in Your Life, Compiled by Dennis Wholey, Section: Edward L. Bernays, Start Page 94, Quote Page 94, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

Every Child Is an Artist. The Problem Is How to Remain an Artist Once He or She Grows Up

John Lennon? Pablo Picasso? Carleton Noyes? Percy Mackaye? Dudley Crafts Watson? Agnes Snyder? Ricky Gervais? Anonymous?

drawing09Dear Quote Investigator: When a child is supplied with paint, clay, paper, and scissors he or she will experiment and construct images and figures. The artistic impulse is strong in the early years of life, but sadly it is often attenuated as a child matures. I believe that the prominent painter Pablo Picasso and the notable musician John Lennon both made statements on this theme. Are you familiar with these quotations?

Quote Investigator: John Lennon did mention children and art during an interview in 1969. Lennon was highly critical of many aspects of society during the colloquy, and he was asked about his alternative ideas for governance. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Just the idea that the individual is capable of looking after himself, that we don’t need centralized government, that we don’t need father-figures and leaders, that every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist, that every person is great until some demagogue makes him less great.

Pablo Picasso died in April 1973, and a few years later in October 1976 a quotation about childhood and art was attributed to him in the pages of “Time” magazine: 2

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

This citation was the earliest linkage to Picasso known to QI; however, the statement was listed without a source or context. QI does not know where the “Time” magazine writer found the quotation. Perhaps Picasso spoke or wrote it in French or Spanish originally.

The thesis of a universal though evanescent artistic temperament in childhood has been propounded for more than one hundred years. For example, in 1907 the art critic Carleton Noyes published “The Gate of Appreciation” which contained the following passage: 3

The child is the first artist. Out of the material around him he creates a world of his own. The prototypes of the forms which he devises exist in life, but it is the thing which he himself makes that interests him, not its original in nature. His play is his expression.

But Noyes argued that the artistic instinct was usually lost as the child grew older:

Imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge.
Gradually the material world shuts in about us until it becomes for us a hard, inert thing, and no longer a living, changing presence, instinct with infinite possibilities of experience and feeling.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Child Is an Artist. The Problem Is How to Remain an Artist Once He or She Grows Up


  1. 1976, John Lennon: One Day at a Time: A Personal Biography of the Seventies by Anthony Fawcett, Chapter: The Peace Politician, Start Page 45, Quote Page 55, Published by Grove Press, New York. (Fawcett stated that the quotation was spoken during an interview given by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an office at Apple Records in 1969)(Verified with scans)
  2. Date: October 4, 1976, Periodical: Time, Article: Modern Living: Ozmosis in Central Park, Note: The quotation appears as an epigraph at the beginning of the article. (Online archive of Time magazine)
  3. 1907, The Gate of Appreciation: Studies in the Relation of Art to Life by Carleton Noyes, Quote Page 29, Published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

The Purpose of Life Is to Discover Your Gift. The Meaning of Life Is to Give Your Gift Away

William Shakespeare? Pablo Picasso? David Viscott? Joy Golliver? Emilio Santini? Anonymous?

gift07Dear Quote Investigator: A popular adage presents a fascinating answer to a perennial philosophical question about the significance of life:

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.

This statement is often attributed to the famed playwright William Shakespeare or the influential painter Pablo Picasso on social networks like Facebook and Pinterest. I know that means absolutely nothing about who really said it. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence linking this expression to William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1993 book by the radio personality David S. Viscott. This citation is detailed further below.

An interesting thematically related statement was included in an 1843 essay titled “Gifts” by the prominent lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson who argued that a gift is only worthwhile if it is integrally related to the gift-giver 1

Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a stone; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing.

In 1993 the volume “Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times: A Book of Meditations” by David Viscott was published. The author was a psychiatrist who hosted a pioneering radio talk show in the 1980s and 1990s during which he provided counseling to callers. Viscott’s statement was composed of three parts instead of two: 2

The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Purpose of Life Is to Discover Your Gift. The Meaning of Life Is to Give Your Gift Away


  1. 1843 July, The Dial, Volume IV, Number I, Gifts (Essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson), Start Page 93, Quote Page 93, Column 1, Published by James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1993, Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times: A Book of Meditations by David S. Viscott, Life, Quote Page 87, Contemporary Books of Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)

Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Steve Jobs? Pablo Picasso? T. S. Eliot? W. H. Davenport Adams? Lionel Trilling? Igor Stravinsky? William Faulkner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gifted entrepreneur Steve Jobs made some controversial comments about innovation during his career. He expressed strong agreement with the following aphorism which he ascribed to the famous painter Pablo Picasso:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Did Picasso really make this remark? Are there other examples of similar statements?

Quote Investigator: An intriguing precursor appeared in an article titled “Imitators and Plagiarists” published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892. The author was W. H. Davenport Adams, and the terminology he used was transposed: “to imitate” was commendable, but “to steal” was unworthy. Adams extolled the works of the famed poet Alfred Tennyson, and presented several examples in which Tennyson constructed his verses using the efforts of his artistic antecedents as a resource. In the following passage Adams referred to his aphorism as a “canon”, and he placed it between quotation marks. Boldface has been added to some excerpts below: 1

Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

Note that Adams depicted poets who stole harshly, but the adage used by Jobs was accepting of the artist who copied or stole: one was good, and the other was great. Adams concluded his essay with additional praise for Tennyson and a condemnation of plagiarists. Oddly, the word “plagiarizes” was incorporated in later variants of the expression.

In 1920 the major poet T. S. Eliot published “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, and he presented his own version of the maxim. Eliot interchanged the terminology used by Davenport by suggesting that: “to imitate” was shoddy, and “to steal” was praiseworthy. This change moved the expression closer to the modern incarnation employed by Steve Jobs: 2

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1892 June, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 272, Imitators and Plagiarists (Part 2 of 2) by W. H. Davenport Adams, Start Page 613, Quote Page 627 and 628, Published by Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1920, The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry and Criticism by T. S. Eliot, Section: Philip Massinger, Quote Page 114, Methuen & Company Ltd., London. (Internet Archive)

Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers

Pablo Picasso? Louis Zukofsky? William Fifield? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our reliance on computerized systems seems to grow every day. The following mordant quotation has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, the most vital artist of the 20th century:

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Recently, I was examining a poem by another influential modern artist, the poet Louis Zukofsky, and I was surprised to find the following words ascribed to “Pablo”:

Calculators can only give answers.

Based on the context I think Zukofsky was crediting this saying to Pablo Picasso. The section of the poem with these words was published in 1967. Can you determine which of these quotes is accurate? Was Picasso really talking about calculators or computers? Or did he use both quotes?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this quotation located by QI appeared in an interview article published in The Paris Review 32 of Summer-Fall 1964. The article called “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview” consisted of a collection of interviews conducted by the prize-winning author William Fifield together with his interspersed observations. Interestingly, the word “computer” did not actually appear in the text written by Fifield that gave rise to the modern quotation [WFP1]:

I feel I am nibbling on the edges of this world when I am capable of getting what Picasso means when he says to me—perfectly straight-facedly—later of the enormous new mechanical brains or calculating machines: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” How easy and comforting to take these things for jokes—boutades!

It is clear the Fifield was talking about devices that today would be called computers. QI believes that it is also possible to see how both versions of the saying highlighted by the questioner could have been derived from the text in the Paris Review.

Fifield later revised his comments and introduced a third slightly different version of the saying as discussed further below. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers