That is why I am incensed that in just the past week, I have spotted EIGHT well-known western artists who have simply painted copies of Edward Curtis photographs. When I say "copies", I mean that they have reproduced the figures, outfits, shading, everything, exactly! These are artists who are FAR beyond me in their careers, and who command prices as much as ten times what I get per painting. But despite the strenuous efforts I and other up-and-coming artists put into our work, I'm seeing master-level painters merely re-paint a Curtis photo, frame it, and send it to shows and galleries.
These are not "tribute" pieces, because nowhere in the title or artists' write-ups about the piece is there any attribution or credit given to the original source material. In fact, sometimes the artist gives their painting a title that varies from Curtis' original one, meaning that the artist has actually avoided identifying the work as coming from an earlier source. A buyer who doesn't happen to know the original reference imagery from memory would think they are paying for that artist's own creation.
I've spotted five--yes, FIVE!--paintings in literally the last three days based on the same exact Curtis photo of a specific Indian man posted in right-facing profile. All five were in national juried shows, commanding impressive prices. Another top-tier artist has recently posted a painting taken directly from a Curtis photo of Red Cloud (by an artist who has also copied Curtis' photo of "Young Wishram Woman"). I've seen another painting made from a Curtis photo of an Indian man (Slow Bull) kneeling at a buffalo skull, hand lifted beside his pipe ("The Great Mystery"). Another featured Sioux leader Crow Dog, lifted directly from a Curtis photo and placed into a new background. Moments ago, a very prestigious national juried show posted a painting of a Chiricahua Apache girl, where every single detail of her clothing, jewelry, hair, lighting, face, and pose were 100% identical to the "Hattie Tom" source photograph. Not a single painting in any of these examples included any attribution or comment by the artist crediting Edward Curtis' photography as their source material, so no, these weren't "tributes." They're plagiarized.
This is not okay. Some of these painters get BIG money for their original art, dwarfing what other artists earn who work hard to develop original imagery. Taking these shortcuts and cashing hefty commission checks for plagiarism is wrong. And yes, it is plagiarism; Art of the West's legal advice column has covered exactly this problem, pointing out as bluntly as possible that copying someone else's photographic reference for a painting without attribution is a violation of the law...and as I mentioned, I've caught eight examples of it in just the last few days.
the Curtis works being copied are no longer protected by copyright, and I am not making any claims about copyright infringement. But plagiarism is different from copyright violation, and even a work that has fallen out of copyright should still be acknowledged when used. even when an artist makes creative alterations, such as varying colors or brushstrokes, basing the art on a prior work without attributing credit is plagiarism. It might not be a legal violation, but it takes advantage of buyers who might not know they are not purchasing an artist's original concept. It also spites artists who avoid such shortcuts to develop imaginative imagery through hard work and personal expense. why bother, if we can just re-paint a Curtis photo, give it a new title, and sell it under our own name without credit?
I personally resent struggling for just enough money to pay bills, working to exhaustion to develop my own unique subject matter, based on research, relationships with Native people, study, and curating an expensive personal collection of hand-made historic clothing and artifacts, while someone else earns ten times my income by just painting a photo passed off as original work. I'm an artist who is trying to build a new life after struggling to overcome a difficult past, and doing things right matters to me. 99% of fellow western artists feel the same, including the part about relying on art to help them move beyond former struggles in their lives, too. Being beaten by plagiarism stings, and it also defrauds the customer.