Jean Dubuffet
Biography, Paintings and Sculpture of Art Brut Collector.

Pin it

For a list of painters like
Jean Dubuffet, see:
Modern Artists.

See: Greatest 20th-century paintings.

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)

An influential figure in modern French painting, and one of the most innovative of all 20th century painters, the artist Jean Dubuffet also excelled at assemblage art, sculpture, lithography and writing. Such was his output that his meticulous catalogue of his work occupies 37 volumes. He spent most of his early life painting, only seriously turning to sculpture in the 1960s. Yet, it is for his plastic art that he is probably best known. His most famous sculptures include Welcome Parade (590 Madison Avenue, Sculpture Garden) and Monument with Standing Beast (James R. Thompson Center, Chicago). He was particularly fascinated by graffiti and Art Brut, while both his painting and sculpture featured found-materials taken from the street life of Paris and elsewhere. He remains one of France's most famous painters as well as one of the most creative 20th century sculptors.

For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

For a list see: Greatest Sculptors.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Early Career

Dubuffet was born in Le Havre in 1901, his family were wine merchants. He studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Le Havre, before moving to Paris in 1918 to attend the Academie Julian. However, he found the Academie too stifling, and left after six months, determined to study by himself. He mixed with the painters Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), Elie Lascau (1888-1969), Max Jacob (1876-1944) and Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). He experimented with Cubism and met the artists Fernand Leger and Juan Gris through the art dealer Kahnweiler. In 1925 he stopped painting, losing faith in his talent, and began working in the family wine trade. He briefly took up painting again in 1930, but stopped again until 1942 - when he decided to return to art for good. He exhibited in Paris in 1944 and 1946 (both times at the Gallery Rene Drouin) and in New York in 1947 (Pierre Matisse Gallery). He approached the Surrealist Group in 1948 and College of Pataphysique in 1954. Through this, he came into contact with the works of Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Andre Masson (1896-1987), Joan Miro (1893-1983), Man Ray (1890-1976), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Salvador Dali (1904-89), Jean Arp (1886-1966), Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau and Yves Tanguy (1900-55).


He produced some famous
examples of Assemblage art.

Art Brut, Outsider Art

Dubuffet began to make growing use of non-artistic materials such as asphalt, broken bottles and graffiti. He collected art by children and mentally ill patients, and called it Art Brut (meaning raw art: also called Outsider Art). Interest in the art of the insane had grown in the 1920s, and in 1948 Dubuffet established Compagnie de l'Art Brut, along with other artists including the surrealist Andre Breton (1896-1966). The collection he established became known as the Collection de l'Art Brut, it contains thousands of works and is now housed permanently in Lausanne. Dubuffet characterised Art Brut as: 'Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.' He argued that mainstream culture sucked the lifeblood out of true unique art - and that drawings/paintings by insane artists were more authentic because they were not interested in following fashion or achieving power or fame. For more, see: Primitivism/Primitive Art.

Portrait Paintings

In 1945 Dubuffet painted his first portrait - a drawing of the French writer Jean Paulhan. Paulhan later introduced the artist to a group of intellectuals, and he also painted many of their portraits. These series eventually became the body of work which formed his portraits exhibition Plus Beaux qu'ils Croient (Better looking than they think). The portraits are named after the sitters, their features enlarged and emphasised by the artist. They combine caricature and factual elements. A lovely example is Dhotel Nuance d'abricot (1947, Centre Pompidou, Paris). Dubuffet kept a log of his technique - laying the stretched canvas on the floor, he covered the entire surface with a thick, sticky layer of oil paint, like icing a cake. While it was still wet, he applied ash over the surface, then sand and coal dust. Then he applied a thin apricot mixture of yellow ochre, white and crimson paint. It was only after all this preparation work to the canvas that the actual head and features were painted in. He also painted landscapes and townscapes.

Three-Dimensional Works

In 1955 Dubuffet held his first exhibition in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Now seen as an important figure in modern art, major retrospectives were awarded him in Paris and New York in 1960-2, and in London, Amsterdam and New York in 1966. From 1962 he limited his paintings to the colours red, white, blue and black. From 1966 he began to create works of avant-garde art with painted polystyrene, making reliefs and free-standing objects. These sculptures became larger, and were painted in vinyl and took on a cartoon style appearance. This initial period became known as his Hourloupe cycle. In 1962, Dubuffet was already 61 years old. He had been painting for the past 20 years, and now, he wanted to give his works a more three-dimensional appearance. He referred to his painted sculptures not as sculptures but rather 'drawings which extend and expand into space'.

Monumental Sculptures

With this style, came commissions for large sculpture including:

Welcome Parade (590 Madison Avenue, Sculpture Garden).
This sculpture consists of 5 polyurethane painted epoxy figures called: L'Accueillant, Cherche-Aubaine, L'incivil, Redingoton, and Le Facetieux. It was originally conceived during an extensive collaboration with the architect IM Pei, who was in charge of developing the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Groupe de Quatre Arbes: a permanent public commission situated at the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York (inaugurated in October 1972).

Coucou Bazaar: Dubuffet's celebrated 'animated painting' consisting of costumed actors and large-scale Hourloupe works – performance art; it was performed at both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and in 1973 at the the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris.

Monument with Standing Beast (James R. Thompson Center, Chicago).
This sculpture comprises 4 elements, suggesting a tree, an animal, a portal and an architectural form (it was for the architectural dimension of his work that Dubuffet earned the American Institute of Architects medal, the only honour that he did not turn down during his lifetime). Dubuffet described the sculpture as a 'drawing which extends into space' and hoped it would resonate with the ordinary people on the street. Monument with Standing Beast reflects Dubuffet's career-long development of his own often brutal, urban style utilising street language, graffiti and caricature. In this, and his restless experimentation Dubuffet remains an important link between modern and contemporary art.


Dubuffet had a lifelong interest in the greater arts, including music. Experimenting with sound and music, he made several recordings with the Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973). In 1978 he collaborated with the American composer Jasun Martz to create an album; the avant-garde symphony was entitled The Pillory. Dubuffet died in Paris in 1985.

During his lifetime, he was the subject of 12 major museum retrospectives including The Museum of Modern Art (1962), which travelled to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tate Gallery, London (1966); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1966); Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas (1966), which travelled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Montreal (1969-70); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York (1973, 1981).

The Pace Wildenstein Gallery represented Dubuffet in America since 1968, and since that time, has held 14 solo exhibitions and one large scale installation exhibition in 2003. Since his death, works by Dubuffet continue to be exhibited worldwide, at venues including: Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris (1991), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC (1993) and Saarland Museum, Saarbrucken, Germany (1999). Dubuffet influenced many contemporary and future groups and individual artists including the CoBrA group (1948-51), the Art Informel abstract expressionist movement (c.1945-60), the Tachisme style of painting, the Dutch painter Karel Appel (1921-2006), and Anselm Kiefer (b.1945).

Museum Collections

Painting and sculpture by Jean Dubuffet can be seen in many of the best art museums around the world, including:

- Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
- Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
- Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- Guggenheim Museum, New York City
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Museum of Modern Art, NY
- Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
- Walker Art Center, Minnesota
- National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
- National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
- Pompidou Centre, Paris
- Stadel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany
- Tate Gallery, London

• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.