The Painter As a Crook

“A picture is something that requires as much knavery, trickery, and deceit as the perpetration of a crime. Paint falsely, and then add the accent of nature.”

Attributed to Edgar Degas

See some of his knavery

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9 Responses to The Painter As a Crook

  1. iondanu says:

    I get it…this is, say, a paradoxe? Degas was a painter who like the mots d’esprit…who liked the paradoxes and even liked to shock…

    And, of course, to same extent, a painter has to trick the eye of his/her spectators… but from that to the title… it’s a bit far fetched…

    By the way: if painter is a “crook” what about politicians? or critics?

    Ion Vincent Danu

  2. 100swallows says:

    I did go a bit far in the title. But it was Degas who listed those skills of the hoodwinker, and I just played along. Not every magician is a crook, of course.
    As you know, many artists have been accused of crimes, starting with Phidias, who, some said, pocketed gold that was meant for a statue. But that is another kind of legerdemain.

  3. iondanu says:

    No harm done, my friend! It’s true that some artists (painters AND writers etc.) were kind of “bad boys” and I can add a few to your list:

    Gauguin, who did some pretty nasty things (not mentionning the abandonig his family…) like infesting with syphilis young girls from Tahiti and Marquises…

    Caravaggio, who was not only a king of painting genius but also an extremely querelous and violent man (he killed 2-3 in duels)…

    Cellini, who also killed a man in duel…

    Picasso, a true genius but a lousy man (not only with his women but also with his friends); he betrayed his friend Appolinaire, letting his carry along the accusation concerning the stealing of La Gioconda (in fact, the servant of Appolinaire did it but the authorities thought that Picasso and appolinaire were mixted up…) ; he let his faithfull friend Max Jacob to be deported by the Nazis as Jew and did nothing to save him, unlike other artists (like the latter friend of Picasso, Georges Braque)… and so on and so forth…

    Villon, Verlaine, Rimbaud and many others Even if, statistically, I don’t think artists gave more criminals than the next professional group…

  4. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Ion. Having a reader like you here will keep me honest!
    I knew about some of those bad guys but not the ugly story of Picasso and Max Jacob. Of course Degas wasn’t speaking about the bad character of artists but about their using deception to produce an illusion of truth.

  5. cantueso says:

    In this context I would like to mention Andy Warhol who is often uncritically
    and even admiringly quoted for defining art as “whatever you can get away
    with”, while Picasso supposedly said that some of the forgeries of his work
    some were likely authored by himself.

    Now, if you remember the famous story of Michelangelo selling one of his
    marbles to a cardinal as an antique, you will see that part of the problem is
    the art market itself with all those people that buy a work of art not
    because of what it is, but because they want a status symbol or an investment
    or because they need something to fill the space behind that TV set.

  6. 100swallows says:

    All right, Cantueso. I’ve been holding back on that Michelangelo story because I thought there had been a little too much in the blog about artists cheating. I want to talk about their art, mainly. But now that you’ve brought it up, I will tell you what I know. Tomorrow.

  7. iondanu says:

    I think that Andy Warhol is also the one who answered a reporter asking “What’s art?” : “Whatever sells”… but I won’t put my hand in fire for that one…

    Anyway, the art market is a fascinating stuff for study… arbitrary, chaotic, absurd… Paying prices like 325 000 pounds sterling for “La fontaine” de Marcel Duchamp (the urinoir slightly modified…) Duchamp himself would be amazed… he ment that as a joke to scandalize the “bourgeois”… Myself, I could live a good life for the rest of my days (and produce some – maybe interesting or beautiful stuff in the meantime…) One drawing of Vincent Van Gogh will also do the trick… People are crazy, no doubt… I’m not saying that a Duchamp or a Van Gogh etc. should not have big prices… But how big si big? 72 millions USD for the “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” – the good one because the one still at Orsay Museum could be a false…?

  8. Reclaus Degas says:

    Your information on my great, grat grandfather Edgas Degas is completely false

  9. 100swallows says:


    My quote is from the sixteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Now, when I went to check it, I was surprised to see that the words were only attributed to Degas. Bartlett usually traces the sources but there was nothing even in a footnote. Maybe you will know where the quote came from.
    The title I gave to the post was meant to be ironical. The quotation was shocking of course—and admittedly over-the-top. Yes, a picture and a work of sculpture achieve their effect through illusion; so the artist can be seen as a kind of magician. But a magician isn’t yet a crook.

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