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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
This period also saw the beginning of the conflict that was to underlie so much of his art and writing. Although he spent time with the rich, he was not one of them, and while they fascinated him, he also thought that their lives were empty. This ambiguity gave his pictures their satiric bite, but it also set the limits of what he could accomplish. He was to remain in the realist camp, but his was a very particular kind of realism—voyeuristic rather than participatory, ironic rather than enthusiastic. As he later recalled, “I aspired then, in extreme youth, to be a man of the world—man of the world in contradistinction to man about town. The bland American face was boring. The careless American’s affected or natural preference for fatigue dress seemed to me to carry unconsciousness too far, to be a move away from rather than toward civilization. . . . The men in full dress at the opera house, though often uncomfortably constricted in these clothes, were at least attempting to reach the goal of my desire. . . . They were frankly materialistic and could allow a glint to appear in their eyes or even leer, if you like, in the presence of a succulent pudding or a beautiful woman. I never discovered which they preferred. At least, they were not puritans. . . .”
Among the people of this class Pène du Bois must have included the American’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, whom he, like his father before him, worked for as both journalist and art adviser. He later also served as an adviser to the millionaire Chester Dale, who figures in one of his best paintings, Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dining Out. Although Dale was his biggest collector during the 1920s, Pène du Bois later spoke of him with a mixture of exasperation and contempt. “I should not like to be in Mr. Dale’s shoes if being in them meant being as nervous and really muddled as their owner,” Pène du Bois wrote in his diary. “His glories have to be in things money can buy him for they are absolutely not in him. He is one of those forced to stand by his pile of gold in order to have any beauty at all.”
So Pène du Bois found himself caught between two worlds. His experience with modern art in many ways ran parallel to his social dilemma. In principle he believed in modern art, but in fact he did not like it very much. He was an early member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors—the group responsible for organizing the 1913 Armory Show, for which he served on several committees. He also edited a special Armory Show issue of the magazine Arts and Decoration, which was conceived of as “an enthusiastic blast in celebration of the new freedom in art.” Although he contributed the essay “The Spirit and Chronology of the Modern Movement,” in which the impressionists and Cézanne took pride of place, until the show opened he had not actually seen the latest French art, and he was more than a little taken aback by the work of artists like Duchamp. Years later he remarked revealingly that “the best mot ” on the Armory Show had been made by the banker James Stillman when he said, “Something is wrong with the world. . . . These men know.”
During the next decade Pène du Bois had little good to say about French art after Cézanne or about most of the American modernists. Yet, at the same time, he realized that modern art had had a positive effect on art and artists in America. In 1916 he wrote, “Modern art and modern art propaganda whether through antipathy or sympathy have done more to revive interest in art than all the learned dissertations from the pens of scholars of the past generation or two.”
In the years following the Armory Show, Pène du Bois found it increasingly difficult to paint. In 1911 he had married Florence (“Floy”) Sherman Duncan, who had three children from a previous marriage. The couple subsequently had two children of their own—Yvonne, born in 1913, and William, born in 1916. Financial needs forced him to devote more time and energy to his writing than to his painting, and he was better known as a critic than as an artist. Between 1913 and 1921 he worked on and off at Arts and Decoration, occasionally quitting in order to devote more time to painting, but being constantly forced by necessity to return.
He was to remain in the realist camp, but his was a particular kind of realism—voyeuristic rather than participatory, ironic rather than enthusiastic.
In 1919 he wrote in his diary that he was tired of writing art criticism: “This awful need of money. What a damper it is on ambition.”
His difficult financial situation also limited the kind of writing he was able to do. In 1917 he replaced Forbes Watson as art critic at the New York Post, a position that allowed him greater freedom than he had enjoyed at his other newspaper jobs. But the Post paid poorly, and in 1919 he was forced to quit. At the time he noted in his diary that he was “sick of writing” and had “run out of ideas or run out of fuel. More than that we’ve run out of money and I really can no longer afford the Post job. It’s an extravagance—as moreover, I told them, I am going to try devoting my whole time to painting. . . . This awful need of money. What a damper it is on ambition.”