These Are Real Paintings: The Story Behind the Internet’s Most Famous Meme
Abraham Lincoln once said, “don’t believe anything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it.” I’m just kidding. The historical quote is actually, “believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see,” and was written by Edgar Allen Poe in a short story he published in Graham’s Magazine in 1845. But thanks to internet culture, words and famous names get jumbled and slapped on memes, then shared around the world. It becomes impossible to decipher what is real, what is based on realness, and what is just plain made up. Our quote, for example, is now misattributed to Honest Abe and even Benjamin Franklin.
So, you might be surprised to know that one of the most famous memes on the internet is indeed a real painting.
The iconic self-portrait titled, Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur, was created by French painter Joseph Ducreux around 1790 and was part of a series of paintings that explored the concept of physiognomy. At the time, people thought that one could derive the character and personality of someone based on their facial features. You might be able to guess why that’s exceedingly problematic but for our little history lesson, it’s a great thing because two hundred years after he painted his self-portrait mocking the viewer, the internet adopted it as one of the most glorious memes ever created.
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.
Interestingly, Ducreux skipped all of that when he was invited to Vienna to paint a now-famous mini portrait of Marie Antoinette. She took a shine to Ducreux and when she married Louis the XVI of France in 1770 and became queen in 1774, she invited Ducreux to be her official court painter. His fancy appointment allowed him to bounce right past the titles of First Painter, Ordinary Painter, and Inspector General of Royal Factories.
Ducreux would leave France to immigrate to England for a spat of time before moving back to France in 1793, which was the tail end of the French Revolution, and was around this time between his work in England and later in Paris when he experimented with physiognomy and expression and the internet’s favorite painting was finally born.
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.
And there you have it. That’s the true story behind the real painting that turned into a meme and rocked the internet.