An American Original
Guy Péne du Bois at James Graham & Sons
Shifting curatorial fashion has not always been kind to American painter Guy Péne du Bois (1884-1958). Too often, he has been tagged a society painter, an ironic snub in an art world dependent on the patronage of the society depicted. Lowery Sims, assistant curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 80’s, gave him the kiss of death by accusing him of being less “socially aware” than Robert Henri, his teacher and leader of The Eight (a.k.a. The Ashcan School).
It was a regrettable dismissal. The Brooklyn-born Péne du Bois was keenly aware. In a cultivated, witty and generous way, he commented on the circle that he painted with the defiance of Daisy Miller. At his finest, class itself is the subject, individuals providing merely the anecdote.
As both an art critic and a practicing painter, Péne du Bois was a passionate, articulate defender of the modern realist tradition. In his 1940 autobiography Artists Say the Silliest Things, he is typically pointed: “New York, then as now, abounded in nouveaux riches. . . .Realists were disturbing. Here was a group of men who would say ‘sweat’ when they meant sweat, anywhere, even in the parlors of people who righteously denied the existence of perspiration.”
On view at James Graham & Sons is the first of two exhibitions celebrating Pène du Bois. This initial show presents the artist’s early years with over 50 paintings and works on paper from 1903 to 1924. We have to wait until 2006 for the great late paintings but this is an excellent place to start. It is a museum-quality introduction to an irrepressible American original. Many of these pieces are on loan from museums or private collections. It is a unique opportunity to see things that will be dispersed or unavailable afterward.
The exhibition begins with the yield of his training under Henri and subsequent self-study in Paris, where he debuted at the Paris Salon of 1905. Much from these early years reflects his acquaintance with the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Degas, Forain and Théophile Steinlen. The subjects he found there remained with him for life: habitués of the opera, cabarets, cafés, public gardens, or anywhere people congregated. Art galleries and museums were frequent occasions for gently astringent observations.
Péne du Bois is a master dramatist of social interactions, particularly between men and women. “Mother’s Darling” (1913) paints an aging son backed against a railing by a buxom elderly parent. Both are in full dress: he in a straw boater; she in a dark cloche with an absurd feather counter-balancing the thrust of her bust in the opposite direction. She is tight-lipped and dominating; he grips the handrail, head turned slightly away in an attitude of cowed discomfort. While the subject is amusing, the composition—a delicate balance of black-browns against dark yellows—is deft and satisfying. Here is the signature of his mature style: Forms are simplified; figures are less individuals than emblems of social station.
Individuation concentrates on the moment seized, not the characters inhabiting it. The radiant “Mother and Son” (1924) features another familial pair inhabiting a close pictorial space that belies the emotional distance between them. On a deck against the brilliant cobalt of water and sky, a sturdy matron sits facing both the viewer and the adult son standing over her. She studies his face while he scans the distance, scrupulously inattentive and poised to keep moving. Built on a single set of complements—blue and orange—Péne du Bois’ simplicity of means serves to underscore the intensity of the moment, as eloquent as any narrative.
“Eugenics Again!” (1914) eavesdrops on an anemic fellow in evening dress taking a down-cast woman aside for a private word. The drawing is inscribed: “But you see, hang it all, the family doesn’t think you’re good enough for me.”
A small radiant panel painting “Behind the Scenes” (1915), gives us a backstage encounter between a predatory balletomane in a silk topper impressing—and assessing—a young ballerina. Her vulnerability before the superior status of the male could not be clearer. The girl’s skin, hair and tutu are swiftly sculpted in low relief, pale overtones glazed to a luminosity impossible with directly painted pastel colors. A trenchant observation of identifiable types, it remains a fine work of craft.
He had an acute eye for affectation. Look closely at “Study of a Gentleman” (1918). A tuxedo-clad upper-cruster sits alone, arm resting on a table top. Old money or new? Answer lies in the raised pinky of his left hand. The clothes are right but the gesture all wrong, like white walls on a pick-up.
A single genial watercolor, “The Art Opening” (1920), hints at the foibles of the art crowd: Four art-lovers pose studiously in front of a painting, at once spectators and spectacle.
Péne du Bois’ handling of women is delicious. Greeted with a wry blend of humor and appreciation, monied women appear most often in command of themselves and their situations. “The Pianist” (1912-14) offers an exquisite foretaste of a theme that preoccupied Péne du Bois throughout his career: the pyschological dominance of women over men within their own stratum.
Here again, a deceptively simple composition and binary color scheme convey an imbalance of forces. Bisected diagonally by the open top of a grand piano, the canvas features a woman in concert. A male bystander, a tad smaller and in shadow, inclines forward to listen while she plays. Dressed in black against a black piano, she is barely visible. Her solidity is manifest only in the pearlescent skin of her back and out-stretched arms sloping to the white line of the piano keys. Yet her élan is palpable, conveyed by her erect posture and compositional dominance. The woman makes a figural triangle that echoes and refines the triangular divisions of the canvas.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a powerhouse herself, was an early champion together with her assistant, Juliana Force. (The Whitney Museum, the first to concentrate on the work of living American artists, currently owns the largest public collection of Péne du Bois’ work.) Péne du Bois, critic and painter, was doubly attuned to collectors; he knew first hand the crucial role played by women collectors and in 1917 wrote a series on the subject for Arts and Decoration.
You need not wait two years to see Péne du Bois at the height of his powers. On view in the permanent collection at the Whitney is the glorious “Opera Box” (1926). Head straight upstairs to find it: A woman, confident with station, stands in architectonic splendor in a darkened theatre box. Illumined by delicate glazes over white body color, it is an astonishing piece of painting.
“Guy Péne du Bois: Painter of Modern Life; Part 1: The Early Years” at James Graham & Sons (1014 Madison Avenue at 78 Street, 212.535.5767).
A version of this essay appeared in The New York Sun, June 3, 2004.
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey