The late 19th century trompe l’oeil artist Victor Dubreuil is certainly enigmatic, as are the paintings depicting currency contemporary with his era that he created.
His work occupies a prominent place among trompe l’oeil still life painters working in New York during the last quarter of the 19th century, largely because he signed his paintings, but much of his life remains a mystery. Today he’s best known for his depictions of money, but why was he obsessed with this theme?
Some believe that the artist’s obsession with money stemmed from the fact that he didn’t have any throughout his life, but that’s conjecture, as are many elements of his life. Even his date of birth is debated, with some authorities providing a birth year of 1842 and others pointing to 1846.
What’s known is that he was active as an artist in New York from around 1880 to 1900, before returning to France, where his date of death is unknown.
His depictions of money were at times so accurate that the Secret Service took an interest in his work, and it is suspected that his paintings (along with the paintings of his contemporaries) may have run afoul of counterfeiting laws. His works today are collected by museums but appear on the market with enough frequency to be accessible to collectors.
His biography and oeuvre together create a fascinating picture of the various elements impacting paper money in the United States during the late 19th century.
A life of mystery
Dubreuil was born in the town of Ayron, near Paris, France, to middle class parents on Nov. 8, 1842 (some sources state), and in his youth fought in the Franco-Mexican War. Upon his return to Paris he worked as a bank clerk and in 1878 he married Virginie Lenoir, a widow who was 15 years older than him. During this time he was deeply interest in Socialist politics, and as a political gesture, stole 500,000 francs from his bank (though he termed it borrowing) and left the bank bankrupt.
He set sail for New York — leaving his wife behind — arriving on June 6, 1882, and found work again at a bank. Soon he was painting still life pictures while teaching himself how to paint.
Always the hustler, he tried his hand at several different types of inventions, such as a pulley-controlled pair of suspenders, but he self-identified mostly as an artist.