AGOUST, Alfred (French. b. circa 1870]
Buffalo Bill [and the "Frenchman's Bottle Gag," a comic tableau from the wild west show]
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. Superb condition, period-style gilt American exhibition frame.
Provenance : Kennedy Galleries (labels); Collection of Edward Eberstadt & Sons.
A very rare contemporary oil painting of an Act in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show: almost all of the 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.
This entertaining painting almost certainly depicts a version of the comedy pantomime routine called "The Frenchman's Bottle Gag" as performed in England by Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. The painting shows a bewildered Buffalo Bill in the center of the canvas, apparently ready to come to blows with two cockney characters on either side of him, one of whom is swilling a drink from a flask. A prominent historian of performance tells us: "The gag, made famous in Paris by the Hanlon 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, 1887-1888, arriving for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and 1889-1893, playing the great theaters and fairgrounds. The 1893 tour was at the height of the show's fame. The 1893 show program correctly stated, "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 Hanlon's 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, however, that the juggling Alfred Agoust was also the well trained, talented artist responsible for this magnificent show business painting, with its attention to costume, props, and comic gesture, demonstrating the specialized knowledge of the insider.
John A. McKinven The Hanlon Brothers, their amazing acrobatics, pantomimes and stage spectacles (Glenwood, Illinois: David Meyer Magic Books, 1998), passim; Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (Chicago: Blakely Printing Company, ), passim.