David Bruce: The Funniest People in Art — Portraits, Practical Jokes, Prejudice


• Paul Cézanne was an Impressionist perfectionist. He made Ambroise Vollard sit 115 times while creating his portrait. When the portrait was finished, Mr. Cézanne declared that its only satisfactory part was the front of Mr. Vollard’s shirt.

• Romaine Brooks painted many celebrities. She found it difficult to get Jean Couteau to sit so she could paint him until she discovered his weakness — she bribed him with pieces of chocolate cake.

• Actress Sarah Siddons’ nose was somewhat longer than usual. When Thomas Gainsborough attempted her portrait, he exclaimed, “D*mn it, madam, there is no end to your nose!”

Practical Jokes

• Mike Balukas was an artist at the Walt Disney studios in the early days. He was deaf, so he was unable to hear people shouting “Earthquake!” in times when people had an urgent need to shout “Earthquake!” in order to get other people out of buildings that might quickly collapse. Therefore, Mr. Balukas used to place a number of short pencil stubs on top of his desk. When an earthquake occurred, the pencil stubs fell onto his drawing board, and he knew to get out of the building — quickly. Recognizing an opportunity when they saw it, other Disney employees would sometimes sneak into a room that shared a wall with Mr. Balukas’ room, and they would bang on the wall until the pencil stubs fell onto Mr. Balukas’ drawing board, sending him running for safety.

• Old money doesn’t like new money. That is what Alva Smith discovered when she married William K. Vanderbilt in the 1870s. Although Mr. Vanderbilt had approximately $100 million, they were 100 million newdollars, and so old money did not especially care for the Vanderbilts. However, Mrs. Vanderbilt wanted to climb the social strata, and so she hired an architect to design a $3 million mansion for her and her husband. Unfortunately, the architect she hired was Richard M. Hunt, whose idea of a private joke was to build her a replica of the mansion of Jacques Coeur, a famous 15th-century social climber.

• Children’s book illustrator Victoria Chess owns two cats, Zazou and Pearl, which like to play practical jokes on her pet dog. Working together, Zazou and Pearl capture a chipmunk and carry it into the house, where they release it near the dog. They then sit back and watch the dog explode into a furniture-upheaving frenzy.

• Practical joker Hugh Troy once painted a mural for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York City. The mural depicted the New York port in the heyday of the clipper ships. In the foreground was a clipper ship with its mast filled with signal flags. Deciphered, the signal flags read, “Keep your money in your mattress.”


• American artist Romare Bearden was light-skinned and could have passed for white if he had wished. In fact, when he was a young man, he was a good baseball player and could have passed for white in the white-only major leagues if he had wished; however, he had absolutely no wish to pass for white. One day, when he was three years old, his parents took him shopping in the white section of Charlotte, North Carolina. His mother went into a store, and his father left young Romare in their horse-drawn carriage for a moment to look in a store window. When his father came back to fair-skinned Romare in the carriage, white people were shocked and thought that he was a kidnapper. Soon afterward, his family moved to New York City, where they hoped to find a less racist area of America.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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