The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 26, Number 5, January 29, 2023, Article 33


Pablo Hoffman passed along a great article on the money art of Victor Dubreuil. Thank you. Here's an excerpt. -Editor

  Victor Dubreuil Take One
Take One

After supposedly stealing 500,000 francs from his bank, the mysterious Victor Dubreuil (b. 1842) turned up penniless in the United States and began to paint dazzling trompe l'oeil images of dollar bills. Once associated with counterfeiting and subject to seizures by the Treasury Department, these artworks are evaluated anew by Dorinda Evans, who considers Dubreuil's unique anti-capitalist visions among the most daring and socially critical of his time.

In October 1893, an unidentified reporter for the New York World visited Victor Dubreuil's studio on West Forty-Fourth Street to ask him about his deceptively realistic paintings of United States currency. Several of his pictures had drawn public interest when they were displayed over the bar in a Seventh Avenue saloon. What the journalist found, when the door opened, was a kindly, fifty-one-year-old, virtually penniless Frenchman who spoke heavily accented English and shared his accommodations with a young nephew. As the writer described Dubreuil, the artist had a bent, portly form, dark eyes, and a grizzled black beard. When he went out, he wore a wide-brimmed black hat. This recently recovered journalist's interview reveals an educated man of strong opinions and many talents. And it helps fill a longtime gap in basic knowledge about Dubreuil and his cryptic, socially-critical images.

Born to middle-class parents on November 8, 1842, he was baptized Marie Victor The´odore Dubreuil in the town of Ayron, near Poitiers. On the record, his father is listed as a landowner. From what is known, Dubreuil joined the French army as a soldier in his twenties and fought in the Second Franco-Mexican War as well as the Franco-Prussian War. Then he settled in Paris, working as the director of an exchange bank. On May 29, 1878, at age thirty-five, he married Virginie Lenoir, a widow fifteen years his senior. By the spring of 1881, he had become a socialist agitator and co-founder of a short-lived newspaper called La politique d'action. He also tried to found a norm-breaking African development company. According to his interviewer, the company would do for France and Africa what the East India company did for England and India, with the difference that the workingman, not the capitalist would reap the financial rewards. Apparently as part of this effort, Dubreuil stole more than five hundred thousand francs from his bank — in an action he justified as borrowing — leaving it bankrupt. On October 29, 1881, the Parisian newspaper La revue e´conomique et financie`re carried a short notice of Dubreuil's disappearance and speculated that he had gone to Holland. According to the paper, an extradition warrant had been issued against him for forgery and misappropriation of funds.

Dubreuil arrived in New York on June 6, 1882, applied for U.S. citizenship, and found short-term employment as a stable boy for the banker The´ophile Keck. In his flight to avoid prison, he left his wife behind and later divorced her. As the journalist reported, after four months of work in the stable, Dubreuil taught himself to paint still lifes, genre scenes, landscapes, and even portraits, so that he became, in his own words, vairsateel (versatile). During these first years in the United States, he also tried to increase his earning power through rather imaginative inventions, such as a special pulley-controlled pair of suspenders. When he became a citizen in 1888, however, his certificate of naturalization listed his occupation simply as artist.

At the time of the New York World interview, Dubreuil was best known for trompe l'oeil images of legal currency, such as Take One. Similar pictures had been produced by some of his American contemporaries, including William Michael Harnett, since at least 1877. As in Harnett's case, the illusionism of Dubreuil's bank notes drew public admiration, which is why he was pursued for an interview. The reporter described two of his larger works on view at the Seventh Avenue saloon in some detail. The first, entitled Barrels O' Money (unlocated), was an unusual depiction of unattainable wealth. It showed rows of oak casks filled with freshly minted treasury bills, topped with heaping shovelfuls of gold coins and sparkling jewels that spilled onto the floor. The second of these two paintings — an image of a bank robbery — was considered the key to the artist's aspirations, disappointments, joys and sorrows. Certainly, it related to his past experience with the world of banking and his current poverty.

  Victor Dubreuil Don't Make a Move
Don't Make a Move!

Now called Don't Make a Move!, the canvas, painted during a time of economic depression, is identified in the article as A Prediction For 1900; or, a Warning to Capitalists. This first title and visual evidence within the painting imply that the subject is an allegorical indictment of international banking. The artist himself, shown wearing his signature broad-brimmed hat and pointing a pistol at the viewer, and his ex-washerwoman pose as two bank robbers who, in their coarse clothing, are ostensibly victims of financial reverses.5 They face the spectator who, in the position of bank representative, is the real culprit and, in fear, has just knocked over a stool and discarded a newspaper. As the blank account ledger shows, no records have been kept, and the money is not in any order but, rather, stashed chaotically in a drawer. In this symbolic world, the upside-down image of Martha Washington visible on the dollar bill at the top of the pile of notes in the washerwoman's outstretched right hand and the pointedly upended word United on a nearby bank note suggest the topsy-turvy state of the country. The discarded newspaper, a fictitious international publication entitled The Sport, produced in London but on sale for five cents, contains several satirical and anti-imperialist references, such as Russian Republic and 1810, the year the paper was established. This is when Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela rebelled and called for an end to Spanish rule. Taken together, other legible words — Salvator, Unidos, and Nihil — imply crisis and general despair.

  Victor Dubreuil The Cross of Gold
The Cross of Gold

Another money painting, The Cross of Gold, derives its title not from the artist but from a famous speech that the presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan gave in the same decade in which the work was made. Bryan's address (now called The Cross of Gold Speech) at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago attacked wealthy easterners for insisting on a gold standard for the country's currency at the expense of the average worker, who would be better off with a silver or a bimetallist standard. Bryan electrified his audience when he ended with the memorable words: You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. Shortly afterward, a caricature of Bryan giving the speech depicted him waving a crown of thorns and holding a huge golden cross. Dubreuil's creation, however, in its striking originality, does not fit this iconography and is not convincing as the literal embodiment, as has been argued, of a contemporaneous politician's rant. In the traditional position of the Virgin Mary is a depiction of Martha Washington, an exemplary historical figure associated with the founding of the nation. Placed this way, she appears to be chief worshiper in a farce. The words United States on the topmost silver certificate seem to confirm that this object of adoration can be interpreted as a satire of the country's worship of money, particularly in this time of financial difficulty.

As a painted subject, currency increased in popularity among still-life painters in New York at the end of the century. Compared with his competitors, Dubreuil was less prolific and more uneven an illusionist than most. In fact, some of his bank notes are quite loosely painted and mostly fanciful, as in a second robbery picture, A Hard Day's Work. Yet while his pictures could be cruder or less exact than those of his better-known contemporaries, they were also more strident in content. Alfred Frankenstein, who in 1953 was possibly the first art historian to mention Dubreuil, admired and reproduced Don't Make a Move! as the artist's masterpiece, later noting with approval its vein of stark brutality. The art historian Bruce Chambers had good reason, in surveying money paintings of the period, to note that Dubreuil's images were the most individual of them all.

  Victor Dubreuil Barrels of Money
Barrels of Money

See the complete article online for much more. Very interesting! -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
Illusory Wealth Victor Dubreuil's Cryptic Currencies (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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