October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

Jacques Harvey was once a struggling artist, but the struggle was not paying the bills: His father owned a chain of French supermarkets and Jacques had his own apartment in the family’s Paris duplex. Harvey’s problem was that he couldn’t find his identity as a painter. Then one day in 1970, a friend from Miami came to Paris and “asked me to help him acquire some Picassos, some Chagalls, some Mo-nets,” Harvey says. “I took him to galleries, but he never found what he wanted. Finally, he had to leave. He said, ‘Find something for me.’ ”

Harvey took up the challenge. When the friend returned, Harvey proudly presented him with a Monet and a Dufy—at a price of only $500 each. “You’ve got to be kidding!” his friend exclaimed. “That is impossible.”

“It is possible,” Harvey said calmly. “I painted them myself.” The friend immediately ordered 40 more. “That,” says Harvey, “is when I realized I could paint dreams—and sell dreams.”

Since then, Harvey, now 52, has painted and sold more than 2,500 such dreams to a well-endowed clientele, including such collectors as Aristotle Onassis, Lucille Ball, Princess Grace and the Shah of Iran. A man of principle as well as principal, he insists that his patrons sign a certificate saying they understand that what they are buying, for fees up to $15,000, is not a genuine Picasso, Titian, Matisse, Dali or Degas but a painting “in the style of” the master. Nonetheless, the front of the canvas bears a replica of the famous artist’s signature, while Harvey’s own disclaimer is on the back—not the part buyers normally display.

Harvey doesn’t actually reproduce masterpieces; he mimics their style. “I change the face, the color of the clothing, the familiar details,” he says, “so an art collector would think it was an original. That is why wealthy people want my paintings in their homes.”

A Renoir or a Van Gogh, of course, makes a great status symbol, but the work of the greatest painters is not only astronomically expensive to buy and insure; most of it is simply unavailable. Little wonder Harvey’s clients often buy his work in quantity, like hamburgers. Onassis, for instance, decorated his yacht and homes with 50 of the painter’s famous fakes. Harveys also hang in the homes of Gene Kelly, Roger Vadim, Wayne Rogers and Harold Robbins. Harvey was commissioned to produce 60 ersatz El Grecos, Picassos, Van Goghs and Chagalls for Vadim’s 1981 film, Stroke of Luck, about an art forger played by Rogers, and he taught the actor how to “do” Picasso and Van Gogh for the role. “He can rip them off very quickly,” Rogers says of his tutor.

Most student artists copy the masters to gain technique for developing their own styles, but Harvey decided early on that “to paint in only one style was not satisfying to me.” From 1959 to 1965 he roamed England, Holland, Spain, West Germany and Italy, scrutinizing “how each artist achieved his special effect.” In a Cannes restaurant he met Marc Chagall. “He loved to go there because he loved the smell of bouillabaisse when it was cooking,” Harvey says. “I used to watch him work and we would talk.” Recently Harvey agreed to do his version of Chagall’s entire Paris Opera House ceiling in the dome-shaped entry of the home of a client “whose name I cannot divulge. I am going to charge him about $40,000,” he says, “because it will be a difficult, painstaking job.”

Like his paintings, Harvey’s claims are both modest and not so modest. “I am the only one known in the world today who can paint in the style of anyone from Da Vinci up to my own style,” he says. “I don’t say that pretentiously because I’m not a pretentious person. I just have to tell you the truth.” He insists he does “not care if I am not known in my life as a famous artist. My job is not to sell the painting. My job is to create it.” But when he stands at the easel doing Picasso, he says, “I become him.” Expanding on a favorite theme, Harvey adds, “If Cezanne were alive today, he would have all our modern day artifacts to paint—Manhattan’s skyscrapers, Central Park. I do those scenes in their styles. In some instances I think I am bringing their style into our age. It is an extension of what they would have done had they been alive today.”

Maybe it’s better that they aren’t, because they might be offended by the millions of dollars Harvey has made imitating the art that barely bought most of them their suppers.

Supper is something Harvey knows about. A skilled chef who entertains friends usually in small groups, he is the co-author of a 1974 recipe book, 365 Ways To Cook Pasta, with Paris restaurateur Alfredo, inventor of Fettucine Alfredo. Harvey also knows something about marriage—he has tried it four times. His first two wives were actresses (the second, Brigitte Auber, introduced him to Princess Grace, whom he painted with her poodle in the style of the 19th-century portraitist John Singer Sargent). The third wife owned a restaurant, and the fourth was a computer executive.

“They remain my best friends,” Harvey says, “but if I am in a creative mood, I can work for two or three days without sleeping or eating or talking to anybody.” He and his current girlfriend, art dealer Frances Dahan, 36, maintain separate apartments in Los Angeles. “When someone lives with me,” Harvey says, “they eventually go away.” Even so, he and Frances were recently engaged.

About the only job that ruffles Harvey is being asked to copy the Mona Lisa, which he has done, grudgingly, twice. “She is ugly, the colors are ugly,” he complains. “Can you believe wanting to look at the Mona Lisa every day at breakfast? There’s nothing to discover there. Better you should have a portrait of your mother hanging on the wall.” By contrast Picasso is his favorite artist, and Monet seems to have inspired his greatest productivity. “If Monet made 300 water lily paintings in his lifetime, there are now 350 in existence,” Harvey says proudly, “because I did 50 more.”

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