Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)

La robe à boutons (Button Dress)

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
La robe à boutons (Button Dress)
signed and dated 'J. Dubuffet 61' (lower left); signed, dated and titled 'La robe à boutons J. Dubuffet sept. 61' (on the reverse)
oil on board
25 ½ x 21 1/8in. (64.7 x 53.7cm.)
Executed on 4 September 1961
Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris.
Saidenberg Gallery, New York.
Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York.
Ruth Leder Shapiro, New York (acquired from the above in 1971).
Her sale, Christie's New York, 13 November 2001, lot 53.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
M. Loreau (ed.), Catalogue des Travaux de Jean Dubuffet. Fascicule XIX: Paris Circus, Lausanne 1965, p. 225, no. 140 (illustrated, p. 76).
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Lot Essay

Painted on 4 September 1961, La robe à boutons (Button Dress) is the first and largest in a sequence of five distinct character portraits that punctuate Jean Dubuffet’s legendary Paris Circus series. Through thick, geological strata of impasto, the shape of a woman’s body emerges, clad in a buttoned dress and hat. Vivid streaks of colour animate her form like graffiti, imbuing the image with a raw, tactile presence. Having returned to Paris in February after six years in the countryside, Dubuffet was struck by city’s newfound joie de vivre: its swarming streets, bustling commerce and thriving fashion industry. His longstanding fascination with unschooled art forms – or art brut – was channeled into electrifying painterly tableaux, alive with the colours, rhythms and textures of cosmopolitan life. The present work and its companions offer a counterpoint to these cityscapes, focusing less on Paris itself than on its colourful inhabitants – among them ‘le mal éduqué’, ‘l’erratique’, ‘Cousin Maurice’ and ‘Cousine Bernarde’. Loosely described by Dubuffet as the ‘Nouvelles Hautes Pâtes’, they extend the so-called ‘haute pâte’ technique first employed by the artist during the mid-1940s. Working on board, he layered paint with a variety of mixed media – sand, glass, cement – creating a mesmerising fossilised terrain into which he scraped and scratched his images. Like a chalk pavement drawing excavated from the rubble, the present work transforms its contemporary subject into a totemic urban relic, quivering with ancient mystery and power.

Directly contemporaneous with large-scale masterpieces including La calipette (31 August), Aux bons principes (2-7 September) and Le gredin prospère (5-6 September), La robe à boutons dates from a triumphant period in Dubuffet’s career. His Paris Circus series, widely regarded as the pinnacle of his entire output, was in full swing, growing more vibrant and frenetic by the day. Having first depicted the city in its war-torn state during the 1940s, Dubuffet had returned in February 1961 to find it transformed. Gone were the ghosts of conflict, replaced instead by joyful currents of social and cultural change: a spirit that would fuel London’s ‘swinging sixties’ and the heyday of American Pop Art. Abandoning the dark, earthy subject matter that had occupied him for the past few years in Vence, Dubuffet rejoiced in the thrill of metropolitan life, absorbing the characters, conversations and bright lights that surrounded him. Daubing his impressions on canvas, board and paper with ruthless vigour, he forged what would ultimately come to be recognised as a new form of contemporary urban art, heralding the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. The present work may be understood as a piece of this puzzle: a celebration of the new fashions and flaneurs who made their mark on the city during this period. Seemingly plucked straight from the ranks of Paris Circus, his protagonist is a symbol of this brave new world.

At the same time, La robe à boutons looks back to the earlier phases of Dubuffet’s oeuvre: most notably his engagement with art brut. Beginning his practice in Nazi-Occupied Paris during the Second World War, he had sought a deliberate break with painterly tradition, looking instead to art created outside the restrictions of Western civilization. Over the following years, he would explore paintings by children, psychiatric patients and the visual culture of remote desert tribes, attempting to divine pure, unfettered modes of expression that channelled the raw essence of the human spirit. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, his practice came to be populated by surreal primordial figures: pseudo-mythological beings who confronted the viewer like characters from an ancient pageant. They were nomads, magicians, prophets and jesters: romantic, archaic archetypes, who seemed to emerge organically from their material surroundings. Aside from the present work’s connection to the early ‘hautes pâtes’, whose subjects resembled archaeological remains, it also recalls the artist’s pivotal 1950 series Corps de dames, which reimagined the female body as a kind of sprawling abstract topography. Inviting comparison with Willem de Kooning’s Women, these vast corporeal visions suggested an intrinsic connection between the human form and the landscape: a sense of mankind being reborn from the earth. The present work, with its surface like crumbled paving slabs, shares some of this optimistic power. With the shadows of war vanquished, it seems to suggest, humanity might begin its dance once again, dressed in its finest and best.

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