Using that classic piece of art on a book cover: Grr…

Works of art, in the form of the reproduction of a painting, frequently adorns the cover of a reissued edition of a renowned novel. Beyond the obvious attempt to draw a connection between the artwork and the book based a shared sense of the "classical", the artwork also seeks to evoke a more specific connection with the contents of the book.

"You can't judge a book from its cover". True, except when a book and its cover are involved. Consider the following book cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen's novel, "Mansfield Pak".

The cover provides the requisite information—title, author, and publisher. But it also includes the reproduction of a portrait of a young woman. We are told on the back cover that the picture of the portrait is "Detail from 'Portrait of Eugénie-Pamela Larivière (19th century) by Louis Larivière in the Louvre, Paris." We are also informed that photograph itself is by RMN Photo—Arnaudet.

So why this picture? It is meant to suggest Fanny Price, who is the hero of the novel. Both Fanny Price and Eugénie-Pamela Larivière are about the same age from the same time period (early 19th century); Fanny Price is located in England, while Eugénie-Pamela Larivière, the sister of the artist, is in France. Fanny Price in the novel is not considered especially attractive (although this perception does change as the novel progresses). All and all, the countenance of Eugénie-Pamela Larivière on the cover comports with the character of Fanny Pride in the text, sending a coherent message to the reader.

Bravo, Penguin Classics-cover well done. But not so fast. Walter Benjamin and John Berger might have a different read.

What preoccupied Benjamin was how to understand the reproduction of works of art, especially in his seminal 1935 essay entitled, in English translation, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Central to Benjamin's understanding of the reproduction of art is the notion of the “aura” of a work, which he described as “its presence in time and place, the unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

For Benjamin, the aura of a work of art in its primal sense was integrated within the practice of ritual, such as a fresco on the wall of a medieval church. As such, mechanical reproduction can never be authentic, nor can a copy ever be perfect, because it is detached from its aura. One might argue that, in modern times, the display of a work at an exhibition, private or public, is as “natural” as it gets from the vantage of the aura (although purists might disagree, here). But what about the use of the artwork on assorted items of commerce?

Art critic John Berger, in his book, Ways of Seeing, following on from Benjamin, famously wrote as follows: “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” Again, in the words of Benjamin, "the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions ….” Using a part of the photo of the Larivière painting on a book cover is certainly that.

The copyright lawyer might well respond with a glazed look. "But of course. That is the great contribution of modern copyright law, recognizing as it does the legal status of a derivative work and thereby opening unlimited commercial possibilities for the work of art." [Merpel notes that, of course, while the Larivière painting is not protected by copyright, it is the principle that concerns us.] Indeed, it is Benjamin's notion of the aura, where each work of art has its own unique setting, which underscores just how derivative its use is when applied to a book cover.

Moreover, using a reproduction of a work of art on a book cover highlights just how different the distribution function is for an artistic work as compared with a literary work. Copyright law developed to protect the commercial potential of (literary) works in an age of multiple reproduction. But this is not the case for works of art. Even if a lithographic reproduction, or the like, of a work of art is made, this is done is limited numbers. Indeed, there was a tradition of artists making a copy of an existing painting; the better the copy, the greater the praise for it, here.

Unlike books, where (more copies) the merrier is the ultimate commercial goal, at the most, the art world countenances monitored and limited reproductions that preserve scarcity (and therefore, the value of the work). Benjamin might take issue with this, but it is far removed from splashing the reproduction of piece of art on a book cover, the more the better.

With all of this in mind, let us circle back to the Penguin Classics book cover of "Mansfield Park". First, we provide below a reproduction of the entire portrait.

Most notably, in the full portrait, Eugénie-Pamela Larivière wears a shawl, and as well her right arm is partially exposed. Her overall countenance is thinner. One could argue that, as seen in the portrait, she is too elegant to be linked to Fanny Price. The marketing value of the reproduction on the book cover is accomplished by providing a different form of the portrait.

The copyright lawyer in me wonders whether these differences could rise to the level of a violation of the integrity aspect of moral rights, which prohibits any distortion of the work that would be prejudicial to honor or reputation. Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on how much elegance one wants to ascribe to Eugénie-Pamela Larivière in the portrait. But even if "no", should it be the practice?

If marketing is all in favor of using the reproduction of piece of art for this purpose, should it not at least be a full reproduction, and not a distortion by using only a portion of the work of art, whatever its commercial value? Or maybe the integrity of the work is not that important

Picture on top center (including the creases in the book cover) by the author.

Using that classic piece of art on a book cover: Grr… Using that classic piece of art on a book cover: Grr… Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Rating: 5


  1. this reminds me of hokusai's rather famous tsunami print. the work was part of a series depicting various views of the sacred Mount Fuji and how it blended into, yet loomed over, Japanese life of the time. This image is apparently now one of the most copied (and distorted) images in the world. The significance of Mt Fuji often carelessly removed.

  2. How is this different than sampling a piece of music? In both cases, the context is lost and any integrity the original music had is lost.

  3. Great point.Congratulations Neil for bringing this copyright aspect to light. I have one observation, though: is it possible to consider licensing agreements in this discussion?

    I was wondering whether artworks from past centuries onwards would have had a licensing agreement on copyrighted artwork or the absence is more the informal rule until the late XIX century.

    I might add that many artists have included licensing agreements in their agreements for public events in recent times. But in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco times and prior to that... Rarity. Perhaps this would be due to a certain absence of business skills to negotiate these contracts at that time or even due to their economic position in the market, which is attained to the economics side of copyrights.

    An insider in business/artistic skills merging into one individual is rare, it comes to my mind, Pablo Picasso or August Rodin.

    Accruing profit from the artwork would be left to the heirs or whoever would be in charge of their assets.

    I am not familiar with Jane Austin's book cover and the artist's biography but I am aware that last century artists like Amedeo Modigliani died in misery (although he came from a rich family). His only daughter was perhaps able to secure some financial gain from his art, perhaps some licensing agreements to his artwork in public collections are easier to follow up, which is a small fraction of what his artwork is retained and sold for in auction houses ( with all the rights attained to it).

    I would be very impressed if this Penguin book art cover
    Is subject to a licensing agreement negotiated by the artist or their representatives before the 1930s.

    I wonder whether there is an interest in the historical side of rights of reproduction and image from past centuries artists, e.g. Henry de Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Piet Mondrian, etc... Mondrian had his artwork reproduced on Yves Saint-Laurent 70s fashion couture, for instance.

    Looking at the past, we could see the evolution of this crucial image and reproduction rights that are as valuable as the artwork itself.

  4. I am in 100% agreement with you! If the artist was still alive, would he exert his moral rights and protest how his painting is being used? I have often thought about this and wondered what would so many of the literary and artistic greats think about how their works are being adapted now!

  5. I'm much more worried about the use of the names of world famouse artists as 'trade marks', composers for wine and spirits, confections etc. That's USE in its worse meaning.


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