Dying vagrant is hailed as 'extraordinary artistic talent'

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The Independent Online

A down-and-out artist who has spent the past two years sleeping and working on the street in Paris has been hailed as an "extraordinary talent".

But Joseph, whose full name and origins are unknown, may not live to enjoy the belated acclaim of the art world. He was taken to hospital last month suffering from what is feared to be terminal bone cancer. Admirers say he continues to turn out dozens of paintings and collages in hospital.

An exhibition of Joseph's works - some of which were painted on cardboard boxes - will shortly be held at a Paris gallery. The French modern art museum at the Centre Georges Pompidou is negotiating to buy one of his paintings.

"There are hundreds of street painters in Paris and hundreds of other would-be painters who exhibit in small galleries. Very few - none I would say - have anything like the ability of Joseph. He is truly an extraordinary talent," said François Gibault, a Parisian lawyer and authority on avant-garde art. M. Gibault compares Joseph to the American artist of Haitian origin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was discovered on the street in New York and died of a drug overdose in 1988, aged 27. Basquiat canvases are now admired worldwide and sell for tens of thousands of pounds.

Joseph was first spotted by Parisian art lovers more than a year ago. He began to sell his paintings for up to €1,000 (£700) a time - allowing him to buy blank canvases but also to fuel a drink addiction, which ran to three bottles of whisky a day. He refused to leave his home on the pavement of the Rue du Roi-de-Sicile in the Marais district of Paris, where he spent his days painting, drinking, philosophising and haranguing passers-by. Many of his paintings are believed to have been stolen while he slept.

Joseph's roots are unclear. He told well-wishers he was of African origin and that he had been adopted by a French family and had two French sisters. But M. Gibault said Joseph insisted, at other times, that he did not know his second name or anything of his past. He is believed to be about 36. "He came to my home once and he showed a great knowledge of art and its history but, as far as I know, was never trained as an artist," said M. Gibault, who is president of the Fondation Dubuffet, dedicated to promoting avant-garde art.

M. Gibault owns seven Joseph paintings. Other Parisian art collectors have a dozen or more.

Their value has not yet been tested but, according to M. Gibault, is likely to rise sharply.

Joseph's street soliloquies also displayed great literary knowledge and, in particular, a love of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, which inspired some of his paintings.

One shopkeeper on the Rue du Roi-de-Sicile said Joseph was friendly, "very, very intelligent" but sometimes incomprehensible. He would sell his canvases for hundreds of euros and spend the money immediately on luxury goods and bottles of whisky.

One one occasion, after selling a painting, he splashed the proceeds on a €300 pair of cowboy boots.

At times Joseph would become withdrawn or even aggressive. He would stop painting and become forbidding and unapproachable. Joseph's work on the street ranged from collages to colourful, abstract canvases.

In hospital, he has taken to creating imaginary portraits, mostly of men. "He has a maturity and a depth of vision which is rarely seen," M. Gibault said.

Well-wishers say he was taken to hospital in mid-August and was diagnosed as having "generalised" cancer, which had spread to his bones.