Know Your Meme

Painting of the corner of an apartment featuring a blue sofa, a side table with a lamp, and walls covered with framed paintings.


Interior of the Artist’s Apartment, made sometime after 1910 by the American painter and watercolorist Walter Gay, shows a narrow view of a sitting area in Walter and his wife Matilda’s Paris apartment at 11 Rue de l'Université, where the couple had moved in May 1909.

Prominently featured in this corner of the room is a large portrait of a man, grinning and pointing at the viewer. The portrait hangs above a bright blue settee and is surrounded by a cluster of five small landscapes. When Interior of the Artist’s Apartment was exhibited at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, in 1949, five years before it was accessioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the portrait was listed as “probably by Goya or one of his followers.”Meme based on an 18th-century portrait of a man wearing a hat, holding a cane, and pointing out at the viewer. Today, it is recognized as a self-portrait by the French painter Joseph Ducreux (1735–1802). Its twenty-first-century fame is due largely to a 2009 internet meme called “Archaic Rap,” in which images of Ducreux’s paintings captioned with slangy one-liners and Britishisms were widely tweeted and shared on Facebook. It is not known when the Gays might have acquired this version of Ducreux’s painting, of which several replicas and copies are known to exist. The picture presumably appealed to the Gays’ love of eighteenth-century French art. It is also possible that the Goya-esque quality observed in 1949 references Matilda Gay’s appreciation of the Spanish temperament: in a diary entry, she describes an acquaintance who “looks just like a Goya, and has the fougueux quality of a man of that epoch.”

The portrait also complemented Walter Gay’s interior scenes, in which he imbues rooms with moods and personalities. Half-closed doors, wrinkled sheets, and cluttered arrangements of bibelots speak as much to the unseen occupants as they do to those qualities innate to a space itself. Working in his own home, Gay sometimes included images of himself and Matilda, adding a more literal expression of portraiture to his work. In Interior of the Artist’s Apartment, Ducreux stands in as the identifiable face to Walter Gay’s living room, and the directness of Ducreux’s portrait remains central to both pictures. Across Photoarchive files, researchers can make their own connections among themes of portraiture and emptiness, and artists like Water Gay, Joseph Ducreux, and Goya and his followers.

Walter Gay (1856–1937), Interior of the Artist's Apartment, undated. Oil on canvas. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

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