The Joan Mitchell Foundation sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Paris headquarters of Louis Vuitton on Tuesday, alleging the fashion brand had used the artist’s paintings in handbag advertisements after her nonprofit organization repeatedly declined to give its approval.
Mitchell, who died in 1992, is considered one of the great abstract artists of the postwar period, and her large-scale works regularly sell for over $1 million at auction. At least three of her paintings, known for their vibrant symphony of color, appear in current Vuitton ads starring Léa Seydoux, the actress.
The Foundation’s letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times, asserts that Louis Vuitton infringed on the artist’s copyright and demands that the luxury fashion brand withdraw its marketing campaign within three days or face legal consequences.
“It is a grave disappointment to the Joan Mitchell Foundation that Louis Vuitton has such disregard for the rights of an artist and would exploit her work for financial gain,” the nonprofit, which has overseen the artist’s intellectual property since 1993, said in a statement. It added that it “has never licensed the artist’s work for use in commercial campaigns,” only allowing the work to be used for educational purposes. A statement on the unauthorized use of the works was released on the foundation’s website.
Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, said in an email, “Louis Vuitton will not comment.”
The letter comes at an awkward moment for the fashion house. Mitchell is currently the subject of a lauded exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a contemporary art space in Paris opened by LVMH, where the artist’s paintings are compared to those of Claude Monet; the show will hang for another week.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation said it was also sending a separate cease-and-desist letter to the Fondation, saying it had violated a license agreement for the Mitchell exhibition that prevents Vuitton from reproducing the artworks in the “Monet-Mitchell” exhibition without consent.
“I was shocked,” Christa Blatchford, director of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, said in an interview Monday. She said she learned of the advertising campaign when she saw the Vuitton ad that included part of a Mitchell painting in The New York Times earlier this month. Blatchford said that last December she had declined Louis Vuitton’s request to use the artist’s paintings in the ad campaign. (An employee representing the fashion brand confirmed receipt of that message of refusal in January, according to emails reviewed by The Times.)
Later in the month, Blatchford received another email on behalf of Jean-Paul Claverie, an adviser to Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH and one of the richest people in the world. The email emphasized that the request to use Mitchell’s paintings was coming from Arnault himself and that the billionaire was ready to make a donation to the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Blatchford said she declined again.
Nevertheless, images of Seydoux in front of the abstract artist’s paintings have appeared online and in newspapers around the world to advertise the company’s Capucines handbags, some of which sell for $10,500. The photo shoot appears to have occurred at the Fondation Louis Vuitton during the Mitchell exhibition, with artworks including the 1983 painting “La Grande Vallée XIV (For a Little While)” appearing behind the model and the white purse. The artworks have appeared in cropped images for the ads without credit to Mitchell or her foundation.
“This whole experience has made it clear to us that the separation we thought was in existence between the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the company was not there,” Blatchford said.
Natasha Degen, chairwoman of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said that Louis Vuitton is known for its own determined legal effort to protect its brand. Louis Vuitton has its own department for pursuing intellectual property disputes and claims on its website to have initiated more than 38,000 anti-counterfeiting procedures worldwide in 2017.
It is also known for working in collaboration with artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. A recent partnership with Yayoi Kusama became an internet sensation when the company installed lifelike representations and robotic versions of the artist at its stores.
“Louis Vuitton’s connection to art allows the company to maintain this sense of rarity and exclusivity,” said Degen, who has written about the convergence of art and fashion.
“And even though many luxury brands describe their foundations as being very separate from their brands, the company has a history of trying to connect the two in the public’s mind,” she added. When the Fondation Louis Vuitton opened in 2014, Frank Gehry, the building’s architect, also designed a series of windows for the fashion brand’s stores and a purse.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation said its policy against the commercial use of the artist’s paintings is longstanding. “We have not done it for anybody,” Blatchford said. “We have never done a cease-and-desist letter, either. ”