Apartment Houses, Paris

Artist: Jean Dubuffet (French, Le Havre 1901–1985 Paris)

Date: 1946

Medium: Oil with sand and charcoal on canvas

Dimensions: 45 × 57 5/8 in. (114.3 × 146.4 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995

Accession Number: 1996.403.15

Rights and Reproduction: © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Jean Dubuffet had twice renounced painting, but in 1942, at age forty-one, he made a firm commitment. By then, he had worked at various careers and become quite erudite in the pursuit of art history, languages, philosophy, literature, and music. In 1918, he had enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris, but left after only six months to work independently. In 1924, after a year of military service as a meteorologist in Saint-Cyr and on the Eiffel Tower, he was employed as a technical draftsman in Buenos Aires. Dubuffet earned a living off and on as a wine merchant, first in his parents' business in Le Havre (1925-30) and then on his own in Paris (1930-34, 1937-42).

In 1923, after reading Hans Prinzhorn's Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922), in which the art of the mentally ill was first considered to have aesthetic value, Dubuffet became interested in pictures made by those without formal training-the uninitiated, the alienated, and especially the insane. Many years later, in 1945, he started a collection of these pictures, which he called "Art Brut" ("Raw Art"), that eventually comprised 5,000 items. Not only did he regard Art Brut as a more authentic, genuine, imaginative, and spontaneous form of artistic expression, but he also came to reject the methods and values of traditional art. "Beautiful" and "ugly" had no meaning for him, and he tirelessly defended his "anti-art" and "anti-culture" theories in lectures and in two volumes of essays (1967). He wanted his subject matter to be accessible to simple people and to relate to their daily lives, and thus his first paintings were of Parisians riding the crowded metro.

This painting, part of yet another series of some fourteen oils and gouaches, focuses on pedestrians in various back alleys of Paris. Emulating the features of Art Brut, Dubuffet intentionally adopted a crude style. The street, sidewalks, and houses are stacked in rows, one above the other, without perspective, depth, or modeling. Windows and shop signs are stuck at random onto facades. The overall effect evokes the backdrop of a puppet theater, such as Dubuffet himself had built and decorated during his previous interlude as a painter (1934-37), when he also carved and painted marionettes.