Born into a cultured, sophisticated family of French origin but with roots in America dating back to 1748, Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958) developed an early interest in art. At the age of 14 he enrolled in William Merritt Chase’s New York School of Art. While Pène du Bois developed a painterly technique and an appreciation for realism under Chase, the arrival at the School in 1903 of a new instructor, Robert Henri, and his advice to venture out of the studio and into the city to better understand the subjects, had an immediate impact on the young artist – as well as his fellow students Edward Hopper, Gifford Beal, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent.
An early trip to Paris in 1905 in the company of his father Henri Pène du Bois, a journalist and an avowed Francophile, earned him an invitation to exhibit at the Paris Salon in 1905. The tragic death of his father in 1906 on board ship for their return home to America forced Guy to turn to art criticism to help support his family. He began writing for the New York American, his father’s former employer, and continued to write as well as paint for the rest of his life, eventually publishing monographs on the work of John Sloan, William Glackens, Edward Hopper, and Ernest Lawson. He was considered an astute critic. In 1911, Pène du Bois married Florence “Floy” Sherman Duncan; the couple welcomed a daughter, Yvonne in 1913 and their son, William three years later.
Pène du Bois’s dual career, with his success as a painter enhancing his insight as a critic, led not only to his inclusion in the 1913 Armory show, but also to his publicizing the landmark exhibition in a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine, which he edited. The same year, Kraushaar Galleries began to represent his work, and continued to do so until the death of John Kraushaar, his longtime friend and dealer, in 1946.
Pène du Bois took to heart Henri’s advice, however the subjects he favored were not generally those of the Ash Can School. They were generally urban, but ran the gamut from city toughs to politicos, young flappers to the affluent at play. The artist himself called them “symbols of sophistication.” They are studies of manners, as keen and acute as those of William Hogarth, at times caustic and revealing the pomposity and foibles of modern society. By 1920, Pène du Bois had achieved the style for which he is best known: flattened and abstracted forms with smooth, volumetric contours rendered with imperceptible brushstrokes, and scenes informed by a satirical sensibility. Duncan Phillips praised him as "an irrepressible mocker of human absurdity and a clever satirist of types familiar to our modern world." He also praised his “flair for good painting.” Pène du Bois became known as a colorist; his use of rose madder was unusual. In his honor students created The Rose Madder Club, which may have inspired the title of one of Pène du Bois’s lighthearted compositions from 1934 [Collection Westmoreland Museum of American Art].
In 1924, in order to devote himself to painting, Pène du Bois brought his young family to France. Out of a desire to escape the temptations of Paris, they settled in the small village of Garnes, remaining for six years. With the increased popularity of Modernism the artist found a decreased demand for his paintings. Despite financial constraints (mitigated to some degree by the generosity of John Kraushaar), the period was a productive one, and for the first time landscape began to play a part in his compositions. Subjects were shown at the race track and in the countryside. When Kraushaar could no longer continue to subsidize his stay, the artist returned to America with his family. Paintings of Yvonne and William, the artist’s children, constitute an important part of his oeuvre through these years.
For the rest of his life, Pène du Bois continued to teach, write and paint, even participating in WPA projects during the Depression. But it is his early pictures, those of the 1920s and early 1930s, for which he is best remembered.
Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for The New York Times eloquently summarized his work:
“It is pretty safe to call him a master and to add that there isn’t a better artist working hereabout today. His draughtsmanship, to put it coldly, commands instant and unlimited respect. His line is pure and vigorous. Color can and not infrequently does attain truly remarkable intensity of tone and subtlety of harmonious relationship. Add to these qualifications an almost unerring sense of composition and one has perhaps sufficiently justified the word master as applied to Guy Pène du Bois.”
The Collection of Willa Kim and William Pène du Bois
Works by Guy Pène Du Bois from the Collection of Willa Kim and William Pène du Bois will be offered in the following sales:
American Paintings, Furniture & Decorative Arts / Auction April 5
Impressionist & Modern Art / Auction May 10
Impressionist & Modern Art / Auction Fall 2017