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Guy Pène Du Bois
He was a society painter in the first decades of the twentieth century. And nobody painted society the way he did.
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
Guy Pène du Bois is one of the more enigmatic figures in twentieth-century American art. His paintings catch the eye with their simple, stylized forms, and their peculiar psychological tension sticks in your mind. The best of them also exude a mysterious and unsettling melancholy that makes you wonder about the man who painted them.
The first time I saw Pène du Bois’s paintings was in 1961, when I chanced upon an exhibition of his work in a Madison Avenue gallery. I was struck by his odd combination of French sophistication and American forthrightness and assumed that he was a transplanted Frenchman, for it never occurred to me that a man with a name like his might have been born in Brooklyn, New York. I was also struck by the self-conscious elegance of the people he painted and remember wondering what his relationship was to that beau monde. The people in his pictures, like the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, seemed to belong to another world—a world of speakeasies, posh parties, and shiny black automobiles with running boards. At the same time, unlike Fitzgerald’s characters, Pène du Bois’s people often verged on caricature, like the people in the old Vanity Fair illustrations.
He courted, and sometimes painted, the rich and powerful, but he stood in a distinctly subservient position to them.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I am still puzzled by the curious mixture of realism and stylization in his work and by his apparent ambivalence toward his subjects. This tension between opposites is the source of much of his distinctiveness.
In certain ways Guy Pène du Bois was typical, almost symptomatic, of certain aspects of American artistic life between the two world wars. If he didn’t fully realize his artistic potential, it could be argued that neither did the nation as a whole and that they failed to do so for similar reasons, by placing more value on good artistic manners than on authenticity of experience. The conflict between these opposing values was rather strongly stated in the early years of the century as being between “truth” and “beauty,” between an art that was acceptable in polite society and an art that remained, in Pène du Bois’s own words, “undefiled by good taste or etiquette or behavior—that national hypocrisy. . . .”
Guy Pène du Bois was born on January 4, 1884. His father, Henri Pène du Bois, an American-born art and music critic of French descent, had been educated in France and had translated several prominent French authors. Guy, who was named after his father’s friend Guy de Maupassant, spoke only French until he was almost nine years old. And although he spent only a small part of his life in France, things French and the idea of France played an important role in his art and life.
Intelligent, perceptive, and articulate, young Guy devoted equal time to writing and art, two of the main family preoccupations. When he was fifteen, his father enrolled him in the New York School of Art, where William Merritt Chase held court. Chase was a facile painter who typified the successful American academic artist at the time. He had studied in Munich, and his personal elegance and credo of “Art for art’s sake” were legendary.
It was from Chase and his assistants that Pène du Bois learned the rudiments of his craft. And although he later disavowed Chase’s teaching, one suspects that he was more influenced by it than he was later willing to admit. Chase in a sense represented “good” artistic behavior for Pène du Bois. Moreover, even though he spent most of his later life fighting against social and technical finesse, it nonetheless insinuated itself into his paintings. In later years Pène du Bois approvingly—almost longingly—remarked on the position of respect that Chase had achieved and that was to elude him for most of his life: “Chase’s role in society was of tremendous value to American art. He was filled with the importance of the artist and could defend him with clipped, witty, biting sentences, could even make him acceptable to men convinced that art was an effeminate pastime, the last resort of incompetents. The dullest financiers treated him with respect. . . .”
The two years he spent as a regular operagoer put him in contact with the class that eventually would become one of his main subjects.
Guy Pène du Bois, on the other hand, found himself in something like the opposite situation. He courted, and sometimes painted, the rich and powerful, but he stood in a distinctly subservient position to them. In certain ways his attitude that the rich were different recalls that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in the early 1920s was Pène du Bois’s neighbor in Westport, Connecticut.