1893. Oil on canvas, laid down on wood, 22 x 30 inches. Signed and dated lower left: "Alfred Agoust / 1893." Titled: "Buffalo Bill" on Kennedy Gallery labels. Provenance: Kennedy Galleries; Collection of Edward Eberstadt & Sons. Superb displayable condition. Handsomely presented in a period-style gilt American exhibition frame. Item #WRCAM37573
This entertaining painting depicts a version of the comedy pantomime routine called "The Frenchman's Bottle Gag," performed in England by Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. The painting shows a bewildered Buffalo Bill ready to come to blows with two Cockney characters stealing drinks from his flask. A prominent historian of performance tells us:
"The gag, made famous in Paris by the Scanlon Brothers and their collaborator, the Agoust Family Jugglers, in the long playing three-stage acrobatics, magic, and pantomime spectacular, 'Le Voyage en Suisse,' usually involves two clowns, a ridiculously dressed Frenchman, and his bottle. The clowns steal his bottle and surreptitiously sneak sips back-and-forth, as the bewildered Frenchman desperately attempts to figure out who's got his bottle. This image is of costers or pearlies, East End London cockneys, victimizing the Buffalo Bill character - the old Hanlon & Agoust drinking routine re- costumed for the Wild West Show's British audience."
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show made two extensive tours of England and Europe prior to the date of this painting: 1887-88, arriving for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee; and 1889-93, playing the great theaters and fairgrounds. The 1893 tour was at the height of the show's fame. The 1893 show program states: "Since the visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West to England and its remarkable engagement in London, at West Brompton, in 1887, a history and tour have been made, such as no organization of its magnitude and requirements ever accomplished."
Henri Agoust, the Hanlons' long-time collaborator (the parties later fell out and sued each other in a bitter legal dispute), had a son named Alfred, a member of the Agoust Family Jugglers. According to a census of traveling show people, he would have been in his early twenties in 1893. His biography is otherwise unknown. It seems likely that the juggling Alfred Agoust was also the well-trained, talented artist responsible for this magnificent show business painting, its attention to costume, props, and comic gesture demonstrating the specialized knowledge of the insider.
Almost all images of the Wild West Show are found in the great lithographic posters and photographs produced by the William F. Cody publicity machine. Period oil paintings of the Buffalo Bill act are very rare indeed. This wonderful image, showing a comic routine Buffalo Bill evidently adopted from European circus acts, is a unique contribution to the iconography of the Wild West Show. John A. McKinven, THE HANLON BROTHERS. THEIR AMAZING ACROBATICS, PANTOMIMES AND STAGE SPECTACLES (Glenwood, Il.: David Meyer Magic Books, 1998), passim. BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST AND CONGRESS OF ROUGH RIDERS OF THE WORLD (Chicago: Blakely Printing Company, ), passim. British Fairground Ancestors, Showmen, Circus and Fairground Travellers Index, website: http://users.nwon.com/pauline/Travellers.html.