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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Victor Dubreuil: His life details and a self portrait

         Victor Dubreuil (ca. 1840-after 1908) remains a puzzling painter.  Although his works are well known and included in prominent private and museum collections across the United States, his life has remained mystery.  Known mainly for depictions of money (frequently painted in a trompe l’oeil fashion) Dubreuil’s imagery is dense; the lack of pertinent biographical information has hampered the understanding of his career and the accurate dating of his paintings.  Previous scholarship on the artist, namely the work of Bruce Chambers and Edward Nygren, have posited various meanings for these idiosyncratic images, but these interpretations suffered from being at once too specific (attempting to discern the artist’s intentions for certain paintings) and overly broad (often including Dubreuil into a larger cultural context that was presumed to be composed of shared values). Recent research sheds significant light on Dubreuil’s life and career and is cause for a reevaluation of the meanings suggested by Chambers and Nygreen in their work.
Detail of the painting traditionally known as Don't Make a Move showing a self portrait of Victor Dubreuil.
         In terms of Dubreuil’s career, there is perhaps no painting more important for understanding the artist and his politics than the one traditionally known as Don’t Make a Move, which features the only known depiction of the artist.  Unfortunately, the painting presently bears a later inaccurate title, and has been dated incorrectly.  A newspaper account of the painting appeared as early as October 1893 and identifies the title as A Prediction of 1900, or A Warning for Capitalists (ca. 1893, present location not determined).  The anti-Semitic depictions Edward Nygren found in the work are difficult to sustain as the account of the image identifies the female figure as Dubreuil’s “ex-washerwoman, now gathered to her fathers” and the man as an image of the artist himself.  The author found that:
[the painting] not only tells a story of its own, but is the key to the life, struggles, and aims of the man who produced it, [it] is the most important and interesting in the place…. [The] desperate looking accomplice with the pistol is the artist himself, and the entire picture is the key to the aspirations, disappointments, joys and sorrows of Victor Dubreuil, ex-financier, soldier, journalist, organizer, porter and stableman, and at present artist, author and socialist agitator.
Dubreuil’s painting does not reference a fear “of American people being robbed and victimized by Jews” but instead imagines a future in which the world’s workers will not sit idly by while the capitalist system grows wealthy at their expense (see Nygren, 149).  The international nature of the painting’s elements (the newspaper from London, the currency from the United States) suggests allegiance to International Socialist movement and concern for the struggle of all the working class, rather than an obsession with American financial policy.  To the extent this image functions autobiographically (a reading supported by his inclusion of a self-portrait), it seems to represent the struggles of a socialist artist living in a capitalist metropolis.
         Based on the age of his self-portrait in A Prediction of 1900 as well as some of the claims made in the newspaper account of his life, Dubreuil was born in France, probably around 1840. He was a soldier during the French intervention in Mexico from 1862-5 and may have stayed in the Army until the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. Later he was involved in banking, and authored at least two texts: Nouveau Procédé d'émission présenté au Conseil municipal de Paris, le 27 avril 1876, à l'occasion de l'emprunt de 120 millions (1876) and Projet de conversion de la rente 5% en rente 3% (1879); he also began a short-lived newspaper titled La Politique d’Action. Claims regarding his African Development company—his French equivalent to the East India Company—but with profits benefitting the workers, have not been verified, though they seem in keeping with his socialist mission.  By 1886 he was living in New York City and in 1888 was granted a patent for a design of suspenders. He had hoped to make enough money to return to France, and his absence after 1908, along with the discovery of a painting of a 500 franc note by a dealer in Amsterdam, suggests he may have made it back (Chambers 68).  His perpetual depiction of money—stemming no doubt from his socialist beliefs and buttressed by his penniless predicament—function as a commentary on the gross displays of wealth attendant to the period.
         A Prediction of 1900 also serves as a reminder about the difficulties and limits of interpretation.  Chambers and Nygren, based on the evidence of the painting itself—the date of 1900 on the newspaper and the physiognomy of the figures—made assumptions that seemed warranted at the time.  Yet, these were made in the absence of specific knowledge about the artist and relied upon broad assumptions of culture and meaning which the authors attempted to assign to a specific image.  Dubreuil’s biography, however, suggests an alternate reading and demonstrates the difficulty in assessing the “truth” of a painting.  Artists make choices that sometimes confound the viewer, they include elements which might have great personal significance, but which are often lost as time passes, as paintings get new titles, and as the historic record obscures their lives and works.

Sources:
Assemblée Nationale, Commission des Marchés, Rapports vol. 3 (nd?), 408-12 which detail the decommissioning / resignation of a “Victor Dubreuil” for refusing to march as ordered.

Chambers, Bruce. Old Money: American Trompe L’oeil Images of Currency, exh. cat. New York: Berry Hill Galleries, 1988.

Dubreuil, V., “Suspenders,” Patent No. 386,973 (United States Patent office: July 31, 1888).

Nygren, Edward J.  “The Almighty Dollar: Money as a Theme in American Painting.” Winterthur Portfolio 23 (Summer – Autumn 1988): 129-50. 

“Paints Millions But Hasn’t a Cent” (New York) World, October 3, 1893.  It was soon reprinted under various titles across the nation, see for instance, “Paints Money: Victor Dubreuil, Soldier, Socialist, Artist, Journalist, and Banker,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 29, 1893.


Jonathan Clancy


This research stems from my chapter "Passing the Buck: Perception, Reality, and Authenticity in Late 19th Century American Painting" in the Book Art and Authenticity (Lund Humphries, 2012).

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