Richard Rodgers, New York (acquired from the above)
Private Collection, New York (by descent from the above)
C&M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2000
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Jean Dubuffet: Retrospective Exhibition 1943-1959, November - December 1959, p. 49, illustrated
Paris, Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Jean Dubuffet 1942-1960, December 1960 - February 1961, no. 130
New York, C&M Arts, Figurative Art from the 20th Century, October - December 1999
Max Loreau, Catalogue des Travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fasc. X: Vaches-Petites statues de la vie précaire, Lausanne 1969, p. 56, no. 68, illustrated
Sophie Berrebi, Anne Lacoste and Sophie Webel, Jean Dubuffet - L’Outil Photographique, Arles 2017, p. 205, illustrated in colour
In Chevalier de Nuit, a mesmerising deluge of pigment is layered and scraped onto the surface as if conceived by Surrealist automatism. Broadcasting autonomy of colour, Chevalier de Nuit is exceptionally abstract. Among the few carefully executed graphic elements in this work, the hands are depicted in the artist’s typical naïf aesthetic while the enigmatic face appears with small yet piercing eyes directed in full-frontal pose towards the viewer. The intensity of the gaze is heightened by the grimace-like contours of the mouth, so abstractly composed that its appearance varies from showing bared teeth to wearing an eerie smile. Rather than conveying a figure’s likeness or personality, Dubuffet subtly but precisely exaggerated certain features to create an arresting recapitulation of the human form.
While Dubuffet strongly rejected the notion of art historical precedents, the origin of his Chevalier can be traced back through art history, from Rubens’ equestrian portraits of royals and Goya’s picadores to the plein-air depictions of the Impressionists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas. However, far from heroic figures of historic and mythical grandeur, Dubuffet’s subjects are authentic, relatable characters, deeply rooted in the artisan life of the countryside. It is thus in the paintings from this period that Dubuffet introduced several other figures related to the rural environment such as Le Planteur – the Sower; L’Homme au Chapeau de Fourrure – the Man in a Fur Hat; and L’Homme au Papillon – Man with Butterfly. However, for Dubuffet, it was not the subject that provided a work with artistic significance, but the very manner in which they were portrayed.
In 1954 Dubuffet was still living in Paris; however, his wife Lili was recovering from an illness in a sanatorium in Clermont-Ferrand, and as such the artist decided to set up a studio in the countryside in an effort to be closer to her. The time spent away from the urban frenzy of the city had a deep impact on Dubuffet’s work. As he recalled: “I became preoccupied with country subjects – fields, grassy pastures, cattle, carts, and the work of the fields” (Jean Dubuffet, ‘Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons’: Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, pp. 96-103). It is thus not surprising that the catalogue raisonné which illustrates Chevalier de Nuit also features the artist’s revered series of Vaches, of which examples are held in prestigious permanent collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Museum of Japan. Similar to the Vaches as well as his earlier series of Corps de Dames, the picture plane of the present work is flattened to the extent that the figure is fused against its background. In its close parallel with the earlier Corps de Dames, this work also possesses the same experimental use of painterly media to create the fluid organic patternation present within the corporeal boundaries of the figure. For the present work and its greater series of 30 or so paintings, Dubuffet combined enamel and oil paint; two incompatible mediums: “I combined these enamel paints with ordinary oil paint and, as they displayed a lively incompatibility, the result was a whole set of digitate spots and convolutions which I was careful to provoke and turn to account. In this way all the subjects – sometimes landscapes sometimes figures – become intricately ornamented… The result, a whole succession of marbling (small internal branching and intricately embellished surfaces) which succeeds in transporting the subject of the painting… to a world ruled by entirely different reasons, making them appear in an unaccustomed light. In this way, by the revelation of our familiar objects suddenly transformed and strange, is evoked, even quite startlingly sometimes (at least for me), these strange bewildering worlds that exercise a kind of fascination” (Jean Dubuffet quoted in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), The Work of Jean Dubuffet, 1962, pp. 92-96).
Echoing the organic appearance of erosion or bodily capillaries, Chevalier de Nuit succeeds in presenting anew the human form; here the elemental organic substance that unites man and nature is revealed in all its mutuality. Indeed, it was during 1954 that Dubuffet began incorporating butterfly wings into his works as a means of further extending a re-articulation of the human form in art. Utterly enchanting for its striking colour, phantasmagorical ornamentation, and intuitive simplicity of form, Chevalier de Nuit achieves a perfect symbiosis of organic splendour and raw expression.
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