Joan Mitchell was an American abstract expressionist artist often associated with the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s. Since she died in 1992, her work has become increasingly popular, with hundreds of galleries and museums adding her paintings to their permanent collections. While her work remains popular among collectors and specialists, many people may have heard about her for the first time just earlier this week when the Joan Mitchell Foundation (JMF) sent a cease-and-desist letter to the offices of Louis Vuitton in Paris.
According to the JMF, Louis Vuitton violated copyright law in featuring some of Mitchell’s work as a backdrop for their new series of advertisements. The ads feature French actress Léa Seydoux posing with a Louis Vuitton Capucine handbag in front of Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée VII. The painting is one of the works featured in a Joan Mitchell exhibition staged at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a gallery and cultural space operated by the fashion house in the Bois de Boulogne park in the west of Paris. The exhibition, known as the Monet-Mitchell exhibition, features sixty paintings by both Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell, highlighting what curators are calling a “dialogue” between the two. It delves into how the former influenced the latter and both artists’ exploration of similar subjects like nature.
The JMF accused Louis Vuitton of “exploit[ing] her work for financial gain”. The organization has only ever licensed the use of Mitchell’s work for educational purposes like gallery exhibitions, making an effort to keep the artist’s work from being used in commercial settings. According to both the JMF and a Louis Vuitton employee, the fashion house had requested that they use some of Mitchell’s work in the advertising campaign, and, keeping with past precedent, the JMF declined. Even when Bernard Arnault, CEO of Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH, offered to give a generous donation to the JMF, director Christa Blatchford again declined. And yet the fashion house went on with their plans anyway. The JMF plans to send another cease-and-desist letter, this time to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, saying that they had violated the terms of their contract barring them from reproducing any of the Mitchell paintings displayed at the exhibition.
LVMH has not commented. This must be rather embarrassing for them, especially since, over the years, they have developed a reputation of rigorously pursuing and clamping down on those who use their trademarks and reproduce their work illegally. Given this reputation, I doubt Louis Vuitton will get away with this without taking a severe blow, both to their reputation and their very expensive pocketbooks.