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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
After the Armory Show, Pène du Bois had become friendly with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who at the time was taking the first steps toward founding what eventually became the Whitney Museum of American Art. He also developed a friendship with her friend Juliana Force, who was the director of the Whitney Studio Club, where Pène du Bois had his first one-man show, in November of 1918. The show received discouraging reviews, criticizing his lack of “power” and “vitality”—just the qualities that the former student of Robert Henri would have valued most.
Pène du Bois seems to have had a complex relationship with Mrs. Whitney. Although they were friends and sometimes attended the opera together—she is depicted in his Opera Box of 1926—he was perpetually impecunious, and she, of course, was very rich. In order to help him without making their financial inequality too apparent, she gave him the use of a Greenwich Village studio, arranged for the sale of his pictures, and commissioned him to do a pictorial history of the Whitney Studio Gallery at 8 West Eighth Street. Pène du Bois, in turn, published Mrs. Whitney’s articles in Arts and Decoration and wrote about her activities as an artist and a collector.
In 1920, to supplement his income, Pène du Bois began to teach at the Art Students League. He was, by his own account, an uninterested and undistinguished teacher, but he nonetheless seems to have had a marked effect on some of his students, notably Raphael Soyer, who worked with him for several years and later referred to him with gratitude. Remote and taciturn by nature, Pène du Bois seems to have been too isolated and self-absorbed to have given much to his students.
In 1921 he decided to move his family to Westport, then still a relatively inexpensive place to live, so that he could dedicate more time to painting. But life in Westport turned out to be one long party, and he found it almost impossible to work there. “Gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights,” he later recalled. “Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.” His growing discomfort and disquiet finally led him to sell the Westport house in 1924 and take his family to France.
Guy Pène du Bois spent most of the next five years in France, and they were undoubtedly the most fruitful of his life as a painter. All along he had worked primarily from memory, and now in France he was able to move freely through the full range of his themes. Although he never quite achieved the stylistic freedom that he had glimpsed in Robert Henri’s studio some twenty years earlier, he was able to perfect his technique and refine his subject matter.
While he was in France, his subjects ranged from memories of going to the opera with Mrs. Whitney to scenes of the daily life around him. To save money and avoid the distractions of the city, he and his family lived at Games, about twenty-five miles from Paris. There they became involved in the pleasures and tribulations of village life and entertained their artist friends. Most important, for the first time since the death of his father, Pène du Bois was able to do nothing but paint.
Guy Pène du Bois spent most of the late 1920s in France, and they undoubtedly were the most fruitful years of his life as a painter.
During this period Pène du Bois also had his first real commercial success. Since 1913 his work had been handled by the Kraushaar Gallery in New York, but it had not sold very well. During his second sojourn in France his work began to sell well enough for John Kraushaar to advance him money against future sales, and for the first time in his life he enjoyed a certain amount of financial security based solely on his painting.
This second French idyll terminated as abruptly as had the first. In the autumn of 1929, shortly after Pène du Bois had taken a house in Nice, Kraushaar sent news of the stock-market crash. With the art market in ruins, it was no longer possible for the dealer to advance him money. The following spring, unable to support himself abroad, he reluctantly returned to New York.
More than ever he felt estranged and embittered by American life. Constantly strapped for funds, he moved around before settling at 20 West Tenth Street, which was to be his last New York address. In order to support himself, he taught at the Art Students League and eventually opened his own summer school in Stonington, Connecticut. During the 1930s he began writing again and won a number of awards; eventually he even became an academician in the National Academy of Design.
In the 1940s, however, his paintings once again became difficult to sell, and he became increasingly alienated from what was going on around him and bitter about the New York art scene. “Every time I think of art in New York I feel like screaming,” he wrote to Forbes Watson in the mid-1940s. He also became increasingly antimodernist and in 1950 vented his anger and despair in Another Expulsion, which shows a Renaissance-style Adam and Eve being cast out of the realms of art by a Picassoid clown.