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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
Pène du Bois worked with Chase and his followers for several years before he began to study with Robert Henri, who joined the school’s faculty in the fall of 1902. His experiences with Henri opened another world to him and gave him a completely different idea of what painting was, how it was done, and how it related to life. Henri “completely overturned the apple cart,” Pène du Bois later recalled, “displaced art by life, discarded technic, broke the prevailing gods as easily as brittle porcelain. The talk was uncompromising, the approach unsubtle, the result pandemonium.” That his studies with Henri were like another kind of life is reflected in his autobiography, Artists Say the Silliest Things, published in 1940. In the first part of the book, he writes in the third person and refers to himself as Giles de Kerlosquet. Not until the chapter called “For Life and Henri” does Pène du Bois begin to use the first person and his real name—as if only then had he truly begun to exist.
For Henri, painting had to reflect the realities of everyday life. The artist had to be, above all, truthful and passionate, as committed to life as to art. “Those who live their lives will leave the stuff that is really art. Art is the result. It is the trace of those who had led their lives.”
In April 1905, after he had worked with Henri for almost three years, Guy went to Europe with his father, who had been sent abroad by the New York American. During the crossing Guy discovered to his chagrin that his father sided with Chase’s views, was against the new school of realism, and believed that an “artist must above all be an aristocrat—a man apart.” This choice between “good” and “bad” behavior was made clear in London, where the elder Pène du Bois hoped his son would profit from the study of such noble works as the Elgin Marbles. Guy, for his part, disliked London, which he found enormous and cold, and the English, whom he found unfriendly and “completely beyond the influence of art.”
France was another story. There “everything was enchanting. . . . We threw off London’s shroud and laughed out loud. Here was light and air and grace.” In Paris Guy found a studio on the Left Bank, across from the American Art Association, and plunged into the café and artistic life of the city. He frequented the Dôme and the Closerie des Lilas and met a number of fellow American artists, including Alfred Maurer, Patrick Henry Bruce, Maurice Sterne, and Mahonri Young. He also began to study the impressionists and post-impressionists and was introduced to the work of Paul Cézanne, whom he came to regard as the “great man” of the modern movement. Although he studied briefly at the Colarossi academy and took some lessons with Théophile Steinlen, his main school was the lively activity around him. He reveled in the gaiety and bustle of the city and in the very different code of behavior that he found in France, which “did not require that man be as passionless as a post, or that he cover an honest fire with a dishonest disguise of ice.”
The idyll ended after just a year, in May 1906, when his father fell ill, forcing them to book passage home. Henri Pène du Bois died during the crossing, and his son’s life was permanently changed. For the first time Guy was obliged to earn a living, which he could not do by painting. Since writing had been the family profession, it seemed only natural for him to earn a living with his pen.
Because his father had been highly regarded in newspaper circles, Guy was hired by the New York American and assigned to the police station in the Tenderloin district. There he quickly realized that he had virtually no interest in workaday journalism and very little ability as a reporter. Although he could write well, he lacked the curiosity, aggressiveness, and interest in facts required by the job. “I failed them on the simplest errands,” he later said. “I couldn’t be counted on to return from an assignment with more than half the required details.” His time in courtrooms and at the police station, however, did provide him with subjects for drawings, which later served as sketches for paintings.
Since his father had been a music critic, Guy was next assigned to the Metropolitan Opera as the American’s regular critic, a job for which he also felt less than qualified. Although his criticism was undistinguished—he characterized himself as ‘Very uninformed and earless”—the two years he spent as a regular operagoer put him in contact with the social class that eventually constituted one of the main subjects of his art.