Clown portraits are one of the major themes in Bernard Buffet's oeuvre. The first clowns appear in 1955, when Bernard Buffet was in a relationship with Pierre Bergé, and his fame was being quickly established. That same year, in a survey of 100 art world personalities published by the revue Connaissance des Arts, Buffet was nominated as one of among the ten best French painters since the end of World War II. The clown would henceforth become one of the key subjects through which Buffet's unique pictorial style was to find its greatest evocative force.
This large Tête de Clown painted in 1961 is particularly expressive: the powerful red background contrasts with the deep black of the top hat and the big white bow tie. The entire composition highlights the clown's penetrating and melancholic gaze. The outline of the forms, accentuated with Buffet’s famous black lines, emphasizes the figure's ambivalence as both comical and disturbing. Buffet's clowns are troubling; they testify to the painter's existential anxiety and call upon the spectator. Through this apparently banal motif, the artist sought not only to depict his vision of the mood of French society in the post-war period, but also to represent himself. Buffet's clowns are as many self-portraits through which the painter, at the height of his glory, communicates nonetheless a certain ambiguity that characterizes his entire oeuvre.
The portraits of clowns are among the paintings most sought after by collectors. Often controversial, Buffet's work has recently undergone a profound critical renewal, especially since the important retrospective exhibition devoted to him at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2016. The image of the clown is symbolic of a complex and transformative oeuvre whose importance at the heart of French figurative painting in the second half of the 20th century is finally becoming recognized.