Nowadays, neither the art nor the writings nor even the name of the American painter Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958) is likely to be familiar to the New York art public. The passage of time, changes in taste and the steady, often cynical drumbeat for the promotion of hot new reputations all conspire to consign even the most glamorous figures from earlier periods in our history to undeserved oblivion. The greatest names survive, of course, but many achievements worthy of serious attention tend to get lost in the clamor for novelty, sensation and the so-called cutting edge.
All the more reason why we should welcome the exhibition of Pène du Bois paintings currently on view at James Graham & Sons. The title of the show- Guy Pène du Bois: Painter of Modern Life , which I take to be a reference to Baudelaire’s great essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863)-strikes exactly the right note for sparking a renewed interest in an artist who was a far more considerable figure in the art world of his day than is now generally recognized.
In many respects, Pène du Bois was the kind of artist in whose work Baudelaire himself took a keen interest-an artist who focused on the fashions and manners of his period to create a pictorial comic opera of contemporary life. In the section of “The Painter of Modern Life” entitled “Beauty, Fashion and Happiness,” Baudelaire wrote:
“These costumes, which seem laughable to many thoughtless people … have a double-natured charm, one both artistic and historical. They are often very beautiful and drawn with wit; but what to me is every bit as important, and what I am happy to find in all … is the moral and aesthetic feeling of their time. The idea of beauty which man creates for himself imprints itself on his whole attire, crumples or stiffens his dress, rounds off or squares his gesture, and in the long run even ends by subtly penetrating the very features of his face. Man ends by looking like his ideal self. These [works] can be translated either into beauty or ugliness; in one direction, they become caricatures, in the other, antique statues.”
It would be hard to imagine a better description of Pène du Bois’ paintings than this.
To the task of creating pictures of this persuasion, which combine a disabused wit with a realist’s appetite for worldly experience, he brought an impressive battery of talents, attachments and affinities. Born in Brooklyn, the son of a journalist and critic who had a passion for French literature, Guy was in fact named after Guy de Maupassant, a family friend, and Guy Pène du Bois was always as much at home in Paris as in New York.
At the age of 21, he made his debut exhibition in the Paris Salon. Yet owing to his studies with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri in New York, Pène du Bois’ paintings belong to the mainstream of 20th-century American realism. Where his art differed from the realism of such contemporaries as Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, however, was in its subjects as well as the undercurrent of satire and gentle mockery in their treatment. The working-class subjects of the so-called Ashcan School of American realism held no appeal to Pène du Bois as a painter, though as a writer he produced monographs on the Ashcan painters that are still worth reading. So too, by the way, is the book he wrote, Artists Say the Silliest Things (1940), in which his penchant for wit and satire is on full display.
What interested Pène du Bois as a painter, however, was the beau monde-the world of money, fashion and status with which he was well acquainted on both sides of the Atlantic. In painting that world, he was generally more sympathetic in depicting its women than its male characters. Thus the two male figures in black tie in The Art Lovers (1922) are seen with their backs to the picture they have ostensibly come to look at, and the two figures, also in black tie, in Father and Son (1929) are positively ghoulish. So is the figure in the even more powerful Portrait of Robert Winthrop Chanler (1915). In the portraits of couples, too- The Doll and the Monster (1914), for example and The Confidence Man (1919)-the men are indeed monstrous.
It was to his portraits of fashionable women that Pène du Bois brought both his deepest sympathies and something else as well: an understanding of the pictorial qualities of their clothes. It’s in these paintings of women, and in some of his group and party pictures- Rose Madder Club (1934), Bal des Quatre Arts (1929) and Carnival (1927)-that Pène de Bois excelled as an artist. Oddly enough, the most sympathetic depiction of men is to be found in Soldiers (1930), while in the painting Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dining Out (1924) both figures are depicted with great affection. (Chester Dale was one of the major collectors of modern painting in Pène du Bois’ generation in New York.)
Given his French sympathies and his firsthand knowledge of the Paris art scene, it’s odd that Pène du Bois seems not to have had much interest in the great modernist art of his time-not, anyway, the kind of interest one would expect to see registered in his own painting. For that subject to be understood, we would have to have a collection of Pène du Bois’ writings as an art critic. The obvious person for assembling such a collection is Betsy Fahlman, author of the excellent catalog that accompanies the current exhibition.
Guy Pène du Bois: Painter of Modern Life remains on view at James Graham & Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, through July 9.