Monday, 1 September 2008


In the introduction to this impressive book, Betsy Fahlman reproduces a photograph of Robert Henri’s 1903-04 Afternoon Life Class at the New York School of Art. What a fascinating group that must have been! Although the absence of a key makes identification difficult, Henri’s students included the painters Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows: a major slice of American art history in the first half of the twentieth century. Also present is the poet Vachel Lindsay, and, unmistakably louche, lounging against a cabinet in the very back of the room, the future actor Clifton Webb. Henri, resembling somewhat photographs of the frontier marshal Wyatt Earp, sits front row centre, and next to him, turned toward his teacher, is Guy Pene Du Bois.

Today DuBois is remembered primarily for his life-long friendship with Hopper; although his works are held in collections all over America, he is largely forgotten. Yet for much of his career, DuBois would have been envied by his classmates; he achieved relative success at an early age, and, in the dual position of artist and critic, had a strong influence on New York’s artistic world between the wars. His antipathy to the rise of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists may explain partly why he fell from fashion, but asking ourselves why others like Hopper have endured and Du Bois has not is an excellent approach toward understanding his work.

Guy, named after du Maupassant, was the son of Henri Pene du Bois, a successful if dilettantish New York journalist of Creole extraction. He began his studies at the New York School under William Merritt Chase, but soon found himself drawn to Henri’s more modernist approach, whereby artistic technique was seen as a tool toward a realistic portrayal of life in the new century. In 1905 he went to Paris with his father, who had been assigned to report on art for the New York American. He enrolled in art classes, and prowled the city, absorbing influences and experiences.

Du Bois’ early work mixes Henri’s very American outlook with the influence of the French painters who surrounded him. ‘A Night At The Opera‘ (1905), is reminiscent of the Degas of ‘Café Concert des Ambassadors’ (1876-77). It also might be compared to, among others, Walter Sickert, who in Britain was mixing modern French influences with a dedication to realism. Du Bois’s impressive Paris sketches of 1905 also show the influence of Daumier. They may be rooted in cliche, but they have real feeling: in ‘Artist’s Studio’ the artist slumps in his chair while his model tries to console him; ‘Rue des Ecoles’ illustrates a revolutionary rising. The sketches which led to his painting ‘Lady In Bed’ (1905) are delicate and sensual. The finished oil has dark and dingy colouring, like Sickert‘s, but Du Bois’stronger brush strokes make a simpler, almost abstract background that contrasts with the touching, affectionate quiet evident in the artist’s portrayal of the sleeping woman, whose face is almost haloed in white.

The faces in these early paintings have none of the detail we see in his drawings, as if to avoid taking the focus away from their settings, yet DuBois conveys much with just a few touches, from the contentment of that sleeping lady to the bonhomie of the man and woman seated in ‘Café d‘Harcourt‘ (1906). In 1906, Du Bois’ father became seriously ill; he died before Guy’s ship reached New York. Needing to support himself, he followed his father into journalism, reporting the police beat for The American. New York’s demi-monde was harsher than the one he’d left behind in Paris. New York's society was far more reproving of artists who patronised its pleasures. By now, DuBois was hob-nobbing with the belle-monde, writing music criticism, and the contrast between his two worlds served to forge his mature style as painter. Here Daumier’s influence becomes paramount.

Where DuBois’ paintings of women in the Tenderloin are full of affection, his drawings and paintings portraying New York society are laced with vicious criticism. The drawings often were accompanied by satirical dialogue or ironic titles. In the paintings politicians and lawyers are grotesquely fat or venially greedy; their women invariably bored or distracted. Paintings with titles like ‘The Doll and the Monster’ (1914) or ‘Behind The Scenes’ (1915) show gentlemen in evening dress pursuing younger women. The women’s faces hide emotions; the men’s, still blank, have none; they are literally empty suits, animated only by their avarice. ‘The Confidence Man’ (1919) tells a subtle story with remarkable succinctness: the downturned face of the matron being taken by the goateed sharp is full of conflicting emotions, conveyed by just a few strong strokes of the brush. 'The Lawyers' (1919) compares well with George Grosz. These works are still powerful today.

So why is DuBois forgotten? The answer may lie in the conflicting impulses of his art. He was, at his peak, a favourite of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and began exhibiting at the Whitney Studio in 1917. A firmer entree into high scoiety could not be imagined. But Fahlman notes the paradox that his living depended on selling to the very people his pictures excoriated. He could get away with this because of his position at the very centre of New York’s art world, but it had its price. Where a painter like Reginald Marsh seems to celebrate the demi-monde he paints, DuBois, while portraying his slumming socialites harshly, also appears to have adopted their viewpoint: you sense palpably his feeling that he too is slumming, that he takes no enjoyment from the world that so entranced him in Paris.

Then, in 1924, aged 40, he gave up his artistic status in New York society, his teaching and writing, sold his house in suburban Westport, Connecticut and returned to Paris. But he was no longer the same painter who had immersed himself in the bohemian world. He now had an expensive household to maintain. His work becomes more stylised, his social comment ever more pointed and bitter, and his commissions dried up. No wonder.

‘Americans in Paris’ (1927) depicts four women, instantly recognisable and as identical as Ryder Cup wives, striding purposefully into tourism around an anonymous Rive Gauche. ’Bal des Quatre Arts’ (1929) has a disturbing, ’They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ feel, from the naked man costumed as an ape to the intoxicated woman trying to jump from the stage to meet him. Unable to support his family with such work, he returned to the US in 1930. With the Depression in full swing it was a bad time to try to resuscitate his career.

From this point, Du Bois’ story is one of struggle. He returned to writing and teaching, chased commissions for murals from the Works Progress Administration. Fahlman details his constant search for money, and it is reflected in a decline in the intensity of his work. Ever more stylised, most of these later paintings lack the bite which made his earlier pictures so captivating. Times were changing, and the wealthy were less interested in seeing themselves examined critically. Again, there is a paradox: when DuBois paints portraits, he can evoke the sitter’s personality in just a few strokes of the brush, and, particularly with women, can be extremely sympathetic. But too often his other paintings, despite or maybe because of the additional detail, lack bite.

Remembering ‘A Night At The Opera’ leads us to Edward Hopper, whose 1919 portrait of DuBois catches, early on, something of the sadness in his friend. Hopper returned to similar theatre scenes throughout his career. He also specialised in awkward bodies and incomplete faces placed in modern settings. But Hopper’s settings and characters remain ambiguous enough to make them intriguing to a modern audience. DuBois’ dramatic flair worked best in its context of sharp social comment; taken out of that context, which became redundant during the depression, he is as stuck in time as modern artists whose work will disappear when the background to their ironic titling is forgotten. The two men attending an opening in ‘The Art Lovers’ (1922) are obviously anything but. They might be figures out of Hopper, but in this context we already sense that, perhaps like Grosz, DuBois was trapped in his time, providing irony about an era that had passed.

Strangely, although a number of DuBois’ later works have an impressive, more abstract quality, as a critic he championed realism against the onslaught of Abstract expressionism. His last painting, ‘Café de Flore’ (1954) is rich in strong black brush strokes, but its figures seem oblivious to their setting, filled with regret and longing for memory.

The picture of DuBois which Fahlman builds is incomplete; a full biography would be welcomed. One can read between the lines, but many questions remain unanswered. For example, the success of his children: William as an illustrator and Raoul as a successful designer and art director on Broadway and in Hollywood. The urge to know more suggests Fahlman has done us great service by bringing DuBois back into the public eye.

GUY PENE DU BOIS: Painter of Modern Life
Betsy Fahlman
Norton/Quantuck Lane Press
176pp, £29.95 ISBN 159372005X

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