Joseph Ducreux: First Painter to the Web


With his hat cocked back, body tilted away from his cane, and right forefinger pointing directly at his audience, Joseph Ducreux commands the attention of those viewing his self-portrait. Despite the wrinkles lining the subject’s eyes, and his apparent need for a walking stick, his 1793 oil painting exudes a youthful, smug confidence.  While Ducreux ‘s Portrait de l’artiste sous traits d’un moqueur (Portrait of the Artist in the Guise of a Mockingbird) is a part of the Louvre’s collection, it is seen more frequently, at least among its younger fans, on tiny iPhone and laptop screens. When viewed in this way, the painting is typically captioned with pop and rap lyrics that have been rephrased into the captioner’s idea of archaic English. Captioned with phrases such as “Do not despise the racketeer; instead despise his sport” (Don’t hate the player; hate the game), Ducreux‘s work has experienced resurgence in popularity as an internet meme commonly shared on websites such as Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter. In today’s culture, where expressive portraits are nothing out of the ordinary, why has a portrait painted centuries ago caught the attention of tech-loving teens and young adults?

Joseph DuCreux, a French portraitist born in 1735, learned the basics of painting from his father before traveling to Paris in 1760 to perfect his craft. Later in the decade, Ducreux was commissioned to paint a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, and the royal family’s satisfaction with the work resulted in him being named First Painter to the Queen. While this role required Ducreux to represent his celebrated subjects in a regal, restricted manner, later in life, he would gravitate towards more animated work, featuring subjects in relaxed poses. During this era of his career, the artist developed a passion for capturing expressive faces and gestures. Other paintings made during this time portray the subjects leisurely yawning, and shushing the viewer with wide, worried eyes. With few established artists painting in this fashion, this pursuit was largely independent, and Ducreux often used himself as the subject of these pieces.  While some of his contemporaries applauded his innovative ability to capture personality so vividly, others frowned upon his breaking of traditional painting norms, or eventually grew tired of his exaggerated style.

Internet memes often thrive off of ironic and absurd juxtapositions, but just how absurd is this combination? In creating this self-portrait, Ducreux questioned what it meant to be a prestigious artist, utilizing his superb skills to produce works that would offend the senses of the elite clients that enabled his success. In tweaking the lyrics of pop and rap songs, the creators of Joseph Ducreux memes are likewise adding a formal flair to a notoriously lowbrow art form. While his lively portraits were considered a novelty product at the time, they now feel notably less dated than other works of the era, especially resonating with a generation in which, with the advent of Facebook and Instagram, nearly everyone fancies themselves a self-portraitist. In today’s world of artistic mash-ups and pastiches, internet users have seen something of themselves in Ducreux, and have managed to make his work their own.

But when the viewer is more interested in decoding the pop culture reference captioning the work than in admiring Ducreux‘s incredible attention to detail, is this newfound popularity necessarily a positive thing? Being unfamiliar with the artist, after I discovered the Ducreux meme, I immediately sought out more information about the artist and fell in love with his work. Meanwhile, I’ve spoken with others who refused to believe me when I told them that the portrait wasn’t a product of Photoshop. The popularity of this painting apparently hasn’t sparked an interest in Ducreux‘s life or career at large, but given that the artist’s passions lied not in producing the traditional paintings that brought him recognition in his lifetime, but in capturing the nuanced personalities and emotions of his subjects, it’s for the best that it is one of these images that has solidified Ducreux‘s legacy in the modern era.