It’s probably not much of an overstatement to say that the cinema world changed on December 19, 1997. That’s the day Titanic — the 195-minute masterpiece by James Cameron — hit theaters in the United States. Fans flocked to see the film — it’s sold an estimated 135 million tickets, fifth all-time — and (not accounting for inflation), was the highest-grossing film at the box office for over a decade (and is still top 5). The movie tells the story of the ship and its disaster through the eyes of socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater, played by Kate Winslet, and anything-but-a-socialite Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
James Cameron, the director and screenwriter, sets up Rose’s character as upper-upper class very early in the movie; when she first sees the ship, she comments that it’s not all that special, and when she first arrives in her stateroom board the ship, she hangs some art on the wall, as seen above. But that’s not just something she painted — it’s a masterpiece. The work Rose is holding is supposed to be “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a famous oil painting by Pablo Picasso. The Spanish artist created the work in 1907, five years before the actual Titanic went down to the bottom of the Atlantic.
You can see a picture of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon below (via Wikipedia), which should be a pretty good clue about the actual painting’s actual fate — it didn’t go down with the ship. In fact, it couldn’t have, because it wasn’t on the Titanic to begin with.
When the movie came out in 1997, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was exactly where it had been for the previous sixty years, hanging in the front gallery of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (The MoMA acquired the painting for $24,000 in 1937 — about $600k today — and raised 75% of the funds by selling a similarly famous painting by Edgar Degas.) But if you only knew the work from Titanic, well, you probably thought it was lost with the ship. Toward the end of the film, as just about everything on board makes its way to the ocean’s floor, moviegoers see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon similarly sink to a watery doom.
And it turns out that Picasso’s heirs weren’t all too happy about that.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the artist’s most famous works, and the Picasso family did not want people to get the wrong idea about its final destiny. As the New York Times reported, the “1907 masterpiece was never lost to the North Atlantic. It has been at the Museum of Modern Art for decades — which is precisely the reason the Picasso estate, which owns the copyright to the image, refused Mr. Cameron’s original request to include it in his 1997 movie.”
But as seen above, Cameron decided to use the painting — or a close-ish replica of it — anyway. That didn’t appease the Picasso estate or the Artists Rights Society, “a company that guards intellectual property rights for more than 50,000 visual artists or their estates, including Picasso’s,” per the Times. As Daily Edge explains, “Under copyright law the artist, or their heirs, retain control of the original image for 70 years after the artist’s death. Picasso died in 1973, therefore Picasso’s family continues to own the copyright until 2043.” And the Society and the Picasso estate believed Cameron violated that copyright.
The issue never reached litigation — the two parties settled, with the filmmakers paying the estate an undisclosed amount. But the bad blood didn’t go away, at least not immediately. In 2012, Cameron re-released the movie in 3D, and the Society and the Picasso estate saw that movie as distinct from the 1997 release — and requested, again, that Cameron not use the painting. He did in the stateroom scene — and paid a licensing fee to do so — but not at the end of the movie. As the above-linked Times story notes, “a fleeting shot of ‘Les Demoiselles’ going underwater has been replaced by Edgar Degas’s work ‘L’Étoile’ — which was also never on the ship but is at least a painting already in the public domain.”
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