Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
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Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)

Le Président

Details
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
Le Président
signed and dated ‘J. Dubuffet Sept. 45’ (upper right)
oil on canvas
36 x 25 in. (91.4 x 63.5 cm.)
Painted in 1945.
Provenance
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford, by 1966
By descent from the above to the present owner
Literature
N. Schlenoff, Art in the Modern World, New York, 1965, p. 215.
M. Loreau, ed., Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fascicule II: Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie, Lausanne, 1966, pp. 39 and 130, no. 38 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Paintings from Paris, May 1946, no. 3.
New York, Pierre Matisse Galery, Paintings by Jean Dubuffet: 1943-1949, January-February 1950, no. 9.
Birmingham, Donald Morris Gallery, Jean Dubuffet: Two Decades, 1942-1962, November-December 1983, p. 11, no. 5 (illustrated in color).
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963: Paintings, Sculptures, Assemblages, June-September 1993, pp. 56-57 and 146, no. 13 (illustrated in color and illustrated in color on the exhibition poster).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Painted in 1945, Jean Dubuffet’s Le Président is a dazzling example of the portraits the artist produced during the latter part of the 1940s, celebrating the ordinary and everyday people that he saw around him. Filling the entire picture plane with this impressive figure, Dubuffet used a wide range of painterly gestures. From smoothing out thick smears of pigment with a palette knife to delicately using the wooden end of his paintbrush to score the man’s features, the full range of Dubuffet’s artistic alchemy is on display in this one canvas. Long known for his restrained, organic palette, Le President is an early example of the artist’s use of color, a factor that would become increasingly important throughout his career, culminating in the 1960s with his vibrant Paris Circus paintings. Exhibited at the artist’s seminal 1993 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Le President was first exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1946, in one of the first exhibitions of the artist’s work in America. Here, it hung alongside Orator at the Wall, another colorful painting from 1945 that now resides in the permanent collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Topped off by his jaunty trilby hat, the grand figure in Le Président commands the composition. Standing upright with his arms crossed before him, he presents himself as with an imposing sense of confidence. His ruddy red cheeks and wide smile convey a sense of jovial contentment, and combined with his three-piece suit, projects an air of success and provincial status. Despite his physical presence, Dubuffet chooses to render his features with a series of delicate, almost invisible, lines created by using the wooden end of his paintbrush to incise them into his face. Thus the man’s eyes almost vanish under the wide brim of his hat, only identifiable as two dark pools by the outlines scratched into the impasto of the painted surface. Similarly the man’s long slender nose and pencil thin moustache are drawn into the surface with a careful movement of the blunt end of Dubuffet’s brush. Moving down through the composition, these tracery lines also denote the cut of the man’s suit, including his six-buttoned waistcoat.

In addition to this variegated brushwork, one of the most remarkable aspects of Le Président, is the artist’s use of color. This is most proficient in the body of the man, where Dubuffet’s palette ranges from organic burnt umbers to deep purples, with yellow and blue arms ending in bright red gloved hands. The jeweled effect is then highlighted further by setting the figure in a dazzling emerald green and sapphire backdground. As Dubuffet applies the individual colors he scrapes and smears at the surface, resulting in rich seams of color that seem to roil up like geological plates. By separating the high-keyed hues from their traditional figurative values, Dubuffet adopts a distinctly Fauvist note, continuing the traditions of his fellow countryman Henri Matisse.

Le Président was painted during a period when Dubuffet began more and more to embrace the use of color in his work. Prior to this he had embraced the earthy browns that would distinguish much of his career. Yet, he loved visiting flea markets and other places where working people would gather, and reveled in what he called the “bituminous and solid brown colours that mankind loves… the colors of mankind’s hair—his roads, his walls and fences, his grime” (J. Dubuffet, quoted by S. Paul, Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art, London, 2017). In the case of the present work, his dazzling use of color continues his non-academic approach to artmaking. He wanted his paintings to appeal to everyone, not just the sophisticated “art-set”, and so his unique approach to both color and materials served those ends just as much as his distinct and naïve style.

Dubuffet emerged to critical acclaim into the Paris art world in 1942 and during the height of the World War II his inimitable artistic style appealed to a population starved of artistic stimulation by the ravages of the Nazi occupation. His work was promoted by several influential French intellectuals, and the powerful American critic Clement Greenberg described him as “the most original painter to have come out of the School of Paris since Miró” (C. Greenburg quoted in P. Schjeldahl “1942 and After: Jean Dubuffet in His Century,” Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963,  exh. cat., Washington, D.C. 1993, p. 15). Dubuffet’s unique way of painting was his direct response to what he saw as the modern obsession with beauty and his assertion that it could be found in every human being, regardless of the refinement of aesthetics. In this sense, Le Président becomes an important part of Dubuffet's project to create a painting that “can illumine the world with magnificent discoveries. It can imbue man with new myths and new mystiques, to reveal the infinitely numerous undivided aspects of things and values of which we were formerly unaware. This, I think, is a much more engrossing task for artists than assemblages of shapes and colors to please the eyes” (J. Dubuffet, "Anticultural Positions", 1951, quoted in M. Glimcher (ed.), Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York 1987, pp. 127-32).

With his unique style, Dubuffet deliberately strips away gloss of traditional aesthetics to make a painting that is direct, energetic,  and with its kaleidoscopic use of color, reminiscent of some of the abstractions preferred by so many of his contemporaries. Yet at the time, this incredibly rich and complex work retains a visual charm that reflects the generosity of spirit that fills Dubuffet's paintings and makes them so consistently engaging.

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