Recently, Crystal Bridges has installed a work by American artist Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958) in the Museum’s Twentieth-Century Art Gallery. The Appraisal, painted around 1946, comes on loan to us from the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Can an esteemed art critic also be considered as a respected painter? We rarely hear of such things, but Guy Pène du Bois was such a person. His name may not reverberate through the annals of American Art as strongly as his life-long friend, Edward Hopper, but Pène du Bois’s contribution is no less valid.
Born in Brooklyn in 1884, Pène du Bois was raised in a Creole household descended from French immigrants who settled in Louisiana in 1738. His family lived among the cultural elite, and young Guy was named after his father’s good friend, the novelist Guy de Maupassant. He demonstrated an early talent in drawing, and in 1899 he entered the New York School of Art under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase, from whom he learned Chase’s signature loose, gestural handling of paint. He later studied with Robert Henri, founder of the so-called Ashcan School of artists in New York during the early years of the twentieth century. Henri’s powerful philosophical, personal, and artistic influence made a lasting impact on the young artist.
Guy Pène du Bois moved to Paris with his father in 1905, where he studied art and even exhibited a painting in the famous biennial Salon exhibition at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He returned to the United States a year later, however, after his father’s untimely death in France. It fell to Pène du Bois to support his family, so upon returning to New York, Pène du Bois took a job with his father’s former employer, the daily newspaper The New York American, as an illustrator and music and art critic. Throughout his career, Pène du Bois split his time and energy between painting and writing criticism, both of which he was celebrated for until his death in 1958.
Early on, Pène du Bois advocated for new art movements, avidly publicizing the infamous 1913 Armory Show in a special edition of Arts and Decoration Magazine, which he edited. He was also a member of the Society of Independent Artists and the Whitney Studio Club (the precursor to the Whitney Museum of American Art), where he held his first solo exhibition in 1918. Pène du Bois began teaching at the Art Student League in 1920, largely to support his income, and in the 1930s he founded an art school in Stonington, Connecticut, where he spent many summers.
After studying with Robert Henri and absorbing the influences of the “paint from real life” philosophy of the Ashcan School artists, Pène du Bois chose to abandon the dark tones and quick, gestural brushwork indicative of his mentors and adopted a lighter palette, using invisible brushstrokes. Active in the New York arts scene of the early twentieth century, Pène du Bois preferred to capture scenes of social interaction, particularly among the cultural elites of New York society. Often depicted with a sense of irony or gentle mockery, his simplified, stylized figures reflected a witty pomposity and superficiality that Guy Pène du Bois found common among the very people he interacted with on a daily basis.
While studying with Henri, Pène du Bois met Edward Hopper, who became a life-long friend. Throughout their careers, both men demonstrated a preference for realism over abstraction and other avant-garde and modernist influences. Upon the death of Pène du Bois in 1958, Hopper wrote, “He certainly was the best friend I had in art.”
Visit Crystal Bridges soon to enjoy Guy Pène du Bois’ The Appraisal, on display through June of 2017.