Illusory Wealth Victor Dubreuil’s Cryptic Currencies
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.
January 25, 2023
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.1
Born to middle-class parents on November 8, 1842, he was baptized Marie Victor Théodore 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 économique et financière 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.2
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 Théophile 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”.3
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.4
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.6
The dominant theme appears to be horse racing, known as “the sport of kings”, with such legible words as “payday” and “European” accompanied by “Derby” and “Chantilly”, the location of famous racetracks in England and France, respectively. Racetrack betting was surely a metaphor for international speculation in currency values. The month and day of the newspaper, given as “Février 21”, likely alludes to the publication on this day in 1848 of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto. With the future centennial year of 1900 added to this date, it becomes an ominous prediction of proletarian revolt. What the robbers have found, in their surprise visit, is an American bank in the act of gambling with the money of its depositors and an international situation that reverberates with the struggle of the disenfranchised. The word “Revolution” notably appears under the newspaper subheading “United States of America”.
Given that it was displayed in late 1893, Don’t Make a Move! almost certainly points to the severe financial panic and depression that began in January of that year. With a paper currency based on a bimetal standard and the general public’s anxiety over the continuance of deflation dating from the Civil War, the gold reserve of the United States Treasury fell below the legal limit, and, in response, the government stopped producing gold certificates. As the situation worsened, some American banks refused to pay cash for the checks of their own depositors or treated their depositors unequally. Hundreds of businesses and banks failed. At the time, one popular explanation was that British and eastern United States bankers were conspiring to force Congress to adopt a single gold standard, thereby increasing the value of the gold supply that they controlled. The economy did not recover until June 1894, and even this relief was followed within about a year by an economic recession.7
To be sure, not all of Dubreuil’s oil paintings were iconographically complex allegories; most were more salable images that showcased his ability to simulate reality in such a way as to fool the viewer. His painted illusions are particularly effective when the subject is a still life — a few dollar bills, a lithographic print, or a carte de visite, such as the one he copied of Grover Cleveland (White House Collection), probably while Cleveland was still president. But Dubreuil was too inventive to limit himself to meticulous copying for its own sake. The artist’s casks of currency, which he produced in a series of at least eight, are imaginary creations that appeal in a humorous way, calling attention to human greed. They also could be used, seemingly without his consent, as an irresistible lure in a saloon scam.8
Concerning the unscrupulous use of these images, we have the testimony of a young bookkeeper, William Applegate. In September 1894 he appeared as a witness before a New York State Senate committee charged with investigating New York City police corruption. Under oath, he described the activities of William Roach, perhaps Dubreuil’s greatest patron and the owner of the saloon in which the artist’s pictures appeared. According to Applegate, “Jimmy” McNally, a gang leader and opium addict from Jersey City, moved into the apartment above Roach’s saloon in January 1893 and began a “green goods” scam or “boodle game” involving Applegate and Roach. The victims made appointments with Roach to meet at the saloon and buy bags of “genuine” counterfeit currency, supposedly printed from stolen engraving plates. With “steerers” egging them on and treating them to liquor, the victims were shown real money (new bills supplied by Roach) as samples of what they were purchasing to convince them of the quality of the counterfeit bills. Then the bag containing the real money was switched with one containing sawdust or its equivalent as the victim turned to argue over the price. In a later version of the scheme a locked box was involved, and the victims were given a wrong key to delay discovery of the contents. What made the ruse particularly successful was that the dupes could not report it to the police without incriminating themselves as purchasers of counterfeit money.9
As Applegate explained, McNally was a lavish spender, “and to please him Roach had hired an artist to paint pictures of gold bricks, wads of greenbacks, bills of large denominations and the like”. These were placed in conspicuous parts of the room and were “meant to impress visiting ‘guys’ with ideas of untold wealth”. The visitors, usually from the countryside, were told that “there was plenty of ‘real stuff’ to be had, the same as portrayed in the pictures”. The real stuff would have been printed from the reused plates. On another occasion, Applegate testified that Roach and McNally were “the best of friends. They found a painter between them, and he made a lot of pictures of money, just like what we had in the bank roll, and they used to excite the greed of the victims by telling them that that was like the money they was going to buy”. The reporter who quoted Applegate added that the pictures that represented thousands of dollars “thrown about promiscuously, still hang on the wall behind Roach’s bar” and inspired not only the green goods victims but also neighborhood pickpockets still at large.10
At least two newspapers carried the saloon story as a relatively minor part of the larger police investigation, but one of them — the New York Herald — annoyed Dubreuil sufficiently that he responded. The Herald journalist, having elaborated on the evil impact of the pictures with regard to pickpockets, concluded that the paintings were “done by an old man who represented a million dollars on canvas three feet square for a fee of twenty dollars or so”. In Dubreuil’s reply to the editor, he wrote: “I painted the pictures referred to but was paid a great deal more than the sum mentioned and never believed, nor do I now believe, the pictures were intended to further any evil purpose. As I am well known on the west side as the painter of these pictures I trust, out of justice to me, you will print the above.” The Herald had condemned the artist by association, without a hearing.11
Dubreuil responded not only in print but also in paint, with one of his most autobiographical pictures. Now called The Eye of the Artist, it apparently dates from sometime between 1895 and 1898. Along with Don’t Make a Move!, this enigmatic still life has been interpreted, partly because of the timing and partly because of the artist’s nationality, as influenced by the 1894 Dreyfus affair in France. The allusion is to a Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, who — chiefly due to strong anti-Semitic feeling — was misidentified, and then framed, as a German spy. Jews at the time were often associated with profit-making banks, and both robbers in Don’t Make a Move! have what some scholars consider to be caricatured Jewish features — a reading troubled by the fact that these figures were based on Dubreuil and his ex-washerwoman. The argument to date has been that Don’t Make a Move! is an anti-Semitic work about Jewish robber-bankers, and, mostly as the result of this conclusion, the picture with the eye and five-dollar bill has also been seen as having a probable anti-Semitic subtext. But the intrinsic evidence does not support this particular reading.12
The Eye of the Artist has actually never been given a satisfactory interpretation. Since Dubreuil is not known to have supplied the painting’s title, the eye is not necessarily even meant to be that of the artist. This motif — a single eye peering through a hole in two wooden planks with a stamped and addressed envelope and a five-dollar bill pasted nearby — is undeniably eccentric and certainly unique in trompe l’oeil painting.
Using Dubreuil’s long-term infatuation with François Rabelais as a point of departure, we can give the painting a new reading.13 When not creating art, Dubreuil worked for more than a decade on an annotated version of the works of this French Renaissance humanist. As his New York World interviewer learned, the artist toiled “day and night to finish the annotations” with the intention of publishing them and explaining Rabelais to “his fellow countrymen and the world”.14 Rabelais is most famous for a series of five satirical and often bawdy books about the genial giant Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel. Essentially, Rabelais attacked established authority, particularly with regard to hypocrisy and repression, and stressed his own perception of individual liberty. Through his Christ-like hero Pantagruel, he promoted a concept he called Pantagruelism, a form of Christian charity. He concluded his second book by advising his readers to avoid hypocrites and dissembling clergymen, referring to an eye: “If you desire to be good Pantagruelists (that is to say, to live in peace, joy, health, making your selves always merry) never trust those men that always peep out at one hole.” He refers here to the clergymen who look out from under a cowl, offering a one-sided or “squint-minded” view. Set within the world of Rabelais, the riveting eye in Dubreuil’s painting thus becomes a symbol of wrong-headed censorship.15
The envelope, “pasted” nearly at the center of the picture, is the most instructive element in that it contains various inscriptions that have autobiographic relevance. Postmarked and addressed to Dubreuil, it carries a New York Herald watermark, including a faint background image of the publisher’s building, as an indication of the sender. Dubreuil could have received such an envelope, sent in reply to his request to be heard, a plea for “justice”, in light of the Herald’s damaging insinuation of his complicity with regard to the barrel paintings. At the bottom left, the word “Removed” relates to the changed addresses on the envelope. Apparently, the Herald’s message — either the real response or, metaphorically, the libelous original — followed the artist as he moved.
The rest of the inscriptions likely constitute Dubreuil’s reply. At lower left, “1614” is one of a series of cryptic numeric references to historic benchmarks in an international struggle to protect individual freedom from the arbitrary authority of a despot. The date 1614 calls to mind the French Estates General (an assembly of representatives of the clergy, nobility, and commoners), which convened that year as the king’s advisers for the last time and as a precursor to its reappearance before the French Revolution. At the bottom, the stamp also contains the mysterious number “152”, which is the exact height in feet of the Statue of Liberty. The ultimate symbol of American freedom, it was a gift from France to the United States on July 4, 1884. President Cleveland dedicated the statue in New York in 1886, when Dubreuil could have been present. Farther to the right and below the corrected address is the only stamped number, “1553”, the reputed date of Rabelais’ death, writ large and placed as a kind of culmination.16
Through the annotations on the envelope, Dubreuil answered the Herald by aligning himself with obedience to law and the pursuit of orderly freedom. By ending with Rabelais, he emphasized the primacy of charity. Throughout his novels, Rabelais provided a model for “evangelical caritas, love of and goodwill towards one’s neighbour”, a Christian kindness very much in contrast to the distrusting eye or the newspaper’s assumption of complicity in a boodle scheme.17 The Eye of the Artist would not have been understood, without explanation, by Dubreuil’s contemporaries and was therefore undoubtedly painted for the artist’s own satisfaction. The enigmatic quality of the work parallels the allegorical aspects of Rabelais’ writings, which required considerable explanatory annotation. Rabelais even spoke of the need for his readers to act like a dog chewing on a bone in order to “suck out the marrow; that is, my allegorical sense.”18
While The Eye of the Artist provides cryptic clues to its meaning, other works somewhat more straightforwardly give the viewer a sense of the artist’s political concerns and convictions. These include Safe Money, in which he depicts the open and overstuffed vault of a mythical railroad company (North, South, East, and West Railroad), revealing its excessive profits in paper currency as well as in gold and silver coins over a six-month period.19 Dubreuil was clearly attracted to the opportunity of exposing capitalist greed and the astounding profits behind such monopolies.
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.”20 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.21 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.22 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”.23 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”.24 In fact, Dubreuil’s societal warnings are more daring and socially critical than the subjects of nearly all — if not all — of his contemporaries. These images have no known fine art counterparts in the period.25
Dubreuil returned to France by 1900 when he had one of his inventions — a life-saving boat — shown in the American section of the International Exposition in Paris, with his New York address listed in the catalog. If this were not sufficient reason for him to cross the Atlantic, there was another. The American federal authorities had an increasing suspicion that he was engaged in counterfeiting.26 In 1897 a Treasury Department Secret Service agent, acting on a law prohibiting the reproduction of currency in any form, ordered the removal of Dubreuil’s painting A Barrel of Money from a New York “beanery” until the U.S. district attorney could give an opinion as to its legality. Almost two years later, a similar barrel picture by Dubreuil, “considered by artists a valuable piece of art”, was confiscated from a Boston shop window and sent to the head of the Secret Service, Chief Wilkie, in Washington.27
Fortunately, Dubreuil left a paper trail in France and what survives — although meager — contributes to the context for his American work. He was no ordinary burglar but, rather, an idiosyncratic moralist who wrote not only a financial column for his socialist journal but also a satirical counterpart concerned with unmasking social, political and financial corruption. Titled “Moralisons!" or “Let's Moralise!", the column, with its humor and criticism, has much in common with the pictures.28
Likewise, during his army stint as a colonel in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), Dubreuil separated himself from his comrades and departed from orders so as to follow his own moral code. That is, he complained about ill-equipped, untrained soldiers and, when nothing was done, resigned rather than lead them into battle. Then, to fulfill his patriotic duty, he rejoined at the lowest rank. At the time, he wrote, in relation to those above him, he had never been anyone's courtier, meaning he could not be bought. Evidently, the stolen bank money was also less purely selfish than appears. He had become involved in supposedly “vast" financial enterprises and part of it related to the quixotic African plan that went awry. Perhaps in this regard, as he told the Tribune interviewer, he had trustingly worked with others and been ruined by “capitalists”.29
Dubreuil continued to paint pictures in France, but, as far as is known, the extant work is not comparable in ingenuity to the best of his New York canvases. Nor is it as numerous, suggesting a possible death date near 1900, when his location (outside of Paris) is last known.30 Reflecting methods he learned from Rabelais, many of Dubreuil’s American pictures are contrived to be indirect in their meaning. Like The Eye of the Artist, the paintings Don’t Make a Move!, Safe Money, and The Cross of Gold have to be chewed on to get out their marrow-like essence. Clearly the odd dates, numbers, and strange juxtapositions are evidence of the artist’s propensity to tempt his audience to interact with his pictures. They provide an intriguing, hint-based game of guessing. As is evident, they also tend to involve a moralizing twist.
Dorinda Evans is a professor emerita at Emory University. She has written five books on American art and artists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ranging from Gilbert Stuart to William Rimmer.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from Dorinda Evans, “Towards Understanding Victor Dubreuil”, American Art 26, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 66–85.