Cassandre, Dubonnet, Fratellini: Restoring a Lost Classic

Les Fratellini / Dubonnet. Ca. 1940.

Cassandre, the pseudonym of Adolphe Mouron (1901-1968), is one of France’s greatest poster artists – one of the first commercial artists to really embrace and exploit the potential of Cubism. He’s famed, above all, for his whimsical 1932 ad for Dubonnet, a brand of fortified wine. His stroke of genius here was to split apart the name “Dubonnet” and play with its potential meanings, as a three-frame narrative cartoon.

Dubonnet Classic

Recently, a collector came to us with a remarkable find: a comic adaptation Cassandre deployed upon the Dubonnet poster to honor the Fratellini Bros., who were the most famous clowns in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The poster, signed by Cassandre in the upper right corner, was most likely never used – Paul Fratellini, one member of the trio, died at the time of printing in 1940 – and thus it was probably never put into circulation. Even more perplexing, the three-sheet poster was missing its middle.

Cassandre: Fratellini Dubonnet 1.

How to present a complete work when 1/3 of it was missing?

The consigner was encouraged to find an artist who could complete this poster in its intended style. The contemporary artist approached the elephant in the room: how to position the three drinkers, when we can only see one, and scant parts of the two others? Cassandre’s Dubonnet man had been seen in many poses over the years, since his 1932 debut – some aligned vertically, some horizontally. We surveyed our extensive archive of Dubonnet images, and identified one – this undated menu card – that contained the most similar alignment of the three figures:

cassandre-dubonnet-ad

Now came the hard part. The three Fratellini brothers had to be superimposed on these original Dubonnet drinkers. François posed no problem, as the top sheet with his familiar visage was complete. But Paul, in the middle, was clearly tilting his top hat toward the viewer – whereas the traditional middle figure, raising his glass to his lips, was always viewed in profile.

To achieve the correct angle for all three figures, the restoration artist used a grid pattern overlay – retracing Cassandre’s own methods. Cassandre would “anchor his works in a very solid construction by giving them the kind of rigorously geometrical foundation that is more often encountered in architecture than in painting,” wrote Cassandre’s son, Henri Mouron: “he felt it necessary to establish his compositions on geometric figures and ‘regulating lines’ based upon numerical rhythms.”

Cassandre-Fratellini Restore Draft.

Using this method, the artist was able to superimpose the images of Paul and Albert in a way that fully respects Cassandre’s own intentions, and Cassandre’s fidelity to mathematical rigor.

The final, complete image is so true to Cassandre’s intent and imagery, that he would doubtless recognize this work as his own.

271. Dubonnet / Fratellini. ca. 1940.
Lot 271. Les Fratellini / Dubonnet. Ca. 1940.
Artist: A. M. Cassandre (1901-1968)
46 1/2 x 62 1/4 in./118.2 x 158.2 cm
Printer: Océa, Paris
Cond A.

This is the world’s only known copy of a recently-discovered Cassandre poster deploying the famous Fratellini Brothers as comedy stand-ins for the dubious Dubonnet Drinking Man made famous by the artist in 1932. “The three Fratellini brothers – Paul, François and Albert – rank among the very top of any list of the great clowns of circus history… Although they traveled throughout Europe and appeared with many circuses, they made their home at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris” (see No. 129). Seen here, from top to bottom, are “François, face painted all white with eyebrows curled up in the middle; Paul, with his collapsible top hat and loosely knotted tie and outsized shoes, and Albert, with baggy pants, several sets of jackets, and always the large red nose, sometimes playing with a wire dog fashioned for him by a young artist then trying to make a name for himself with his mobiles, Alexander Calder” (Circus Posters, p. 12).

Preview the highlights of this very special, 75th Vintage Poster Auction
on Tuesday, June 26, 2018
beginning 2pm EDT
online and live at
Rennert’s Gallery
26 W. 17th Street, NYC, 10011