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The Joan Mitchell Foundation has issued a warning to the French fashion company Louis Vuitton for copying at least three works by abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell without a licence in an advertising campaign for the “Capucine” handbag model with actress Léa Seydoux as the model, thus infringing her copyright.

On 21 February, the Joan Mitchell Foundation publicly accused the French fashion house Louis Vuitton, which belongs to the LVMH group, of having reproduced at least three works by the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) without the necessary permission in a new advertising campaign for the handbag model “Capucine” and has therefore issued it with a warning for copyright infringement.

Source: Louis Vuitton Malletier; picture in the background: La grande vallée xiv (for a little while), Joan Mitchell (1983)

In the advertising campaign in question, the French actress Léa Seydoux can be seen in front of several paintings. As you can see above, they are partly cropped and covered, but still identifiable: they are Joan Mitchell’s works “La Grande Vallée XIV (for a little while)”, “Quatuor II for Betsy Jolas” and “Edrita Fried”. The three paintings are currently on display at the Fondation Louis Vuitton on the outskirts of Paris, where they are juxtaposed with works by Monet.

This is not the first time that the French fashion house has combined Léa Seydoux and paintings in its advertising. Louis Vuitton had already used (now copyright-free, § 64 German Copyright Act) images by the French impressionist Monet in an advertising campaign for the same handbag model.

The Joan Mitchell Foundation did not agree to the use of the works even after several requests from Louis Vuitton. The Foundation’s policy is that Joan Mitchell’s works should only be used and licensed for educational and exhibition purposes. In the warning letter, it demands that Louis Vuitton remove the campaign from the internet, provide comprehensive information regarding its distribution and publicly apologise.

Not only is Louis Vuitton in breach of copyright, it is also questionable what consequences this incident will have for the exhibition of the Mitchell pictures in Paris. It is true that the Fondation Louis Vuitton is legally separate from the fashion brand. However, the fact that it allowed – apparently contrary to the exhibition conditions – that the exhibited pictures be used for the creation of the advertising campaign constitutes a breach of contract.

In the public statement by the Joan Mitchell Foundation the foundation has threatened to take legal action if Louis Vuitton does not comply with its demands. It remains exciting to see whether this will develop into a major new case at the intersection of fashion and art law.