These Are Real Paintings: The Story Behind the Internet’s Most Famous Meme

See? Not all art history is boring.

Four paintings by Joseph Ducreuz | Public domain images

Who was Joseph Ducreux?

But who was Joseph Ducreux? His story is a bit wild. During his time, the Western world of painting was run by the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which existed from 1648 until it was abolished in 1793 during the French Revolution. Students were molded into master artists who painted portraits, bowls of fruit, historical scenes, and landscapes, and there was an extremely restrictive hierarchy that aimed to keep Academy-trained artists in all the most desired appointments once they graduated.

The meme that broke the internet.

Maybe it was his status as official court BFF to Marie Antoinette or his influencer attitude that helped to elevate him beyond the stuffy rules of the Academy, but whatever it was, Ducreux was no stranger to experimenting far outside the rules of what was considered good art and trash art. His series of portraits that played with facial expressions were highly unusual for his day — it was also a subtle fuck you to the art establishment. That shady attitude seems to have survived the last 200 years because his self-portrait enjoys a cult-like status on the internet today.

Enter Biggie Smalls.

In 2009, an unknown content creator fused rap lyrics over the image of Ducreux’s self-portrait. Inspired by the weirdly modern pose and gesture of the painting, the content creator used a sense of humor and a twist of irony when he used lyrics from Notorious B.I.G’s 1995 hit single Get Money. The line, “fuck bitches, get money,” was hilariously reimagined in faux-archaic English to become “disregard females, acquire currency.” The meme has inspired countless other versions with rap and pop lyrics, political slogans, and trending internet phrases all using the same logic of translating current online vernacular into old-timey punchlines.

Parenting, Science, and History Essay Hustler | Book Writer | Rabid Reader | Rep’d by Folio Literary Management | Follow me on Twitter, FB, IG @housewifeplus

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store