DescriptionThe Hon Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection
VICTOR DUBREUIL (American, circa 1880-1900)
American Paper Currency, circa 1889-1891
Oil on canvas
12 x 14 inches (30.5 x 35.6 cm)
Signed lower left in red: V. Dubreuil
Purchased from Gerold Wunderlich and Company, New York, February 1992 (label verso).
Antiques, February 1992, full-page ill. p. 266.
One of the sub-genres of nineteenth-century American trompe-l'oeil painting was money painting, i.e., ultra-realistic, actual-scale renderings of coin but primarily of currency. By virtue of its paper thinness, currency could truly appear, through a painter's ability, to be the real thing pasted directly onto the surface of a canvas or a board. This type of imagery grew out of the work of the dean of trompe l'oeil painters, William Michael Harnett, who popularized a more "masculine" type of still-life imagery in the United States during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His paintings included a rather wide array of motifs such as dead game and hunting gear, smoking and drinking paraphernalia, stacks of books, newspapers, letter racks, musical instruments, guns, and even money which immediately conjured environments such as dens and studies, business offices, banks, taverns and clubs, hunting lodges, and other nineteenth-century male domains. Harnett's imagery, and the success it awarded him among businessman clients who purchased these subjects, spawned specialists. Among them were those who painted money, such as John Haberle of New Haven, Connecticut, who was highly versatile and painted many other subjects as well, and Victor Dubreuil of New York City who painted little else.
Dubreuil remains a rather shadowy figure in the history of trompe-l'oeil still life painting, since little of his biography has been traced. He may have been the son of a French couple, Aime T. and Caroline Ferraro Dubreuil, who emigrated to New York around 1847 (Old Money: American Trompe L'Oeil Images of Currency, exh. cat., Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, 1988, p. 70). His birth and death dates remain unknown, but his base of operation in New York is circumstantial. As Alfred Frankenstein noted, "In the 1890's he frequented a saloon known as the Dickens House at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. He traded some of his pictures for food there, and some of these pictures, which have survived, contain letters addressed to the artist on West 43rd and West 44th Streets. For at least some time, then, he drifted about the Times Square neighborhood" (The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L'Oeil Tradition in American Painting, exh. cat., Berkeley, 1970, p. 144).
Nearly every scholar who has written about the work of Victor Dubreuil comes to the same conclusion: that the man was obsessed with money. Alfred Frankenstein went so far as to suggest that the obsession stemmed from his never having had any! Dubreuil painted money in practically every form he could imagine: loose bills stuffed into overflowing barrels, wrapped bills arranged compactly inside a safe, or a few notes tacked up on a dark wall in an X-shape, which is their disposition in the Buchanan example and in a very similar work in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio (see W.H. Gerdts and R. Burke, American Still-Life Painting, New York, 1971, fig. 10-25, p. 154). Sometimes Dubreuil painted a single note all by itself in the manner of a portrait. On at least one occasion he even painted a picture of bank robbers taking money out of a till.
American Paper Currency depicts five individual bills with denominations ranging from one to twenty dollars. The issue dates for them range from roughly 1889-1891, establishing an approximate date for the painting. Dubreuil's portraits of money were painted with such incredible realism that one of his paintings was confiscated by the Secret Service for its resemblance to actual currency. In 1909, Congress passed a law prohibiting all facsimiles, including paintings, of paper currency.
In addition to this currency painting by Dubreuil, the Buchanan collection also contains work by two figures who form bookends to the nineteenth-century American trompe-l'oeil movement: John Frederick Peto and Charles Meurer.
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