February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
He was a society painter in the first decades of the twentieth century. And nobody painted society the way he did.
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.
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. . . .”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In 1953 Pène du Bois closed up his Tenth Street apartment and left for Paris, accompanied by his daughter, Yvonne. He was in poor health and profoundly discouraged, and this time even Paris could not revive his spirits. After three largely unproductive years there, he returned to the United States and went to Boston, where he stayed with his newly married daughter. There, during the summer of 1958, Guy Pène du Bois died of cancer, more or less forgotten by the world.
Since his death Pène du Bois’s reputation has remained uncertain. The 1961 exhibition at which I first saw his work got unenthusiastic reviews. He was referred to as “sadly faded” and as the “uncomfortable man in the middle between the old and the new.” In subsequent years responses to his work have been somewhat cool, and it was not until he was given a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1980 that it was possible to get an adequate overview of his accomplishment. My own feeling is that Guy Pène du Bois remains a minor master in the best sense of the term. His best paintings have a presence and an originality that are striking and forceful. When you come across them in museums, they catch and hold your attention, and they remain with you afterward.