Editor's note: The following 1994 essay was published on August 27, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the author. It was written concerning an exhibit held at the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg, PA during September - October, 1995. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author by writing to: Arizona State University School of Art, P.O. Box 871505, Tempe, AZ, 85287-1505.


Guy Pène du Bois: The Twenties at Home and Abroad

by Betsy Fahlman


One of the most trenchant images of the 1920s was the American painter Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958), whose distinctive work exemplifies some of the decade's most significant cultural symbols. The artist pictured subjects emblematic of the era: the sophisticated urbanite, the flapper, and the American abroad in fashionable settings -- cafés, theatres, and art galleries. His representations are enriched by an international perspective. American born, he was deeply rooted in his French family background. Yet he remained thoroughly grounded in his native country. Throughout the nearly six years he resided in France as an expatriate, he steadfastly maintained his faith in the American art world, where his paintings were sold by his New York dealer to American patrons. His dual frame of reference permitted him an unusual vantage on his fellow Americans at home and abroad.

The painting of Guy Pène du Bois came to maturity during the twenties. As an independent, he never associated himself with a specific school or movement; but scholars today, broadly speaking, consider him a social realist. His characteristic themes were inspired by the human figure set in situations the artist had seen in life and recreated from memory. He was fascinated by social interactions and class roles, but issues of social protest or attempts to effect political change did not interest him. Drawing on the tradition of caricature and commentary found in the work of his French predecessors Honoré Daumier and Jean Louis Forain, his social commentary took a sharp view of contemporary society. His titles, such as The Social Register (1919), tend to be ironically humorous rather than bitingly sarcastic.

With New York as its center, twenties America emerged an urban nation. During these years, The Smart Set and Vanity Fair, among other journals, catered to a sophisticated Manhattan readership. But the contents of The New Yorker, which first appeared on 21 February 1925, most closely parallel the painted themes of Guy Pène du Bois. Its sophisticated and witty columns -- "The Talk of the Town" or "Tables for Two" -- reflected the major interests of its affluent readers by concentrating on night life, restaurants, sports, theatre, and opera. A "Letter from Paris," an important feature made famous by Janet Flanner, signaled the international, Francophile perspective of its readership.

Like The New Yorker, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald -- whose first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920 -- were another analogue to the art of Guy Pène du Bois. For a short time, he was the painter's neighbor in Westport, Connecticut. Since Pène du Bois never had the money of Fitzgerald and his friends, his images are more those of an observer than those of a full participant. But his many years as a music reviewer and an art critic gave him ample opportunity to study his subjects in their characteristic habitats.

The two decades prior to the twenties were full ones for the artist, conducted at a pace that meant erratic time in his studio. He had begun art classes in 1899, studying first under William Merritt Chase, then with Robert Henri. After further training in Paris, he returned to America, where economic necessity led him to embark on a career as a reporter in 1906. Following in his father's professional footsteps, he published his first pieces of art criticism in 1908. His marriage in 1911 to Florence Sherman Duncan, who had three children from a previous marriage, added new financial responsibilities, which increased with the births of their daughter Yvonne in 1913 and son William in 1916. Not until 1918, at the age of thirty-four, did he have a one-man exhibition-at the Whitney Studio Club (his first group showing had occurred in 1905 at the Paris Salon).

Between 1920 and 1924, Guy Pène du Bois resided in Westport, a pretty village about fifty miles from New York in southwestern Connecticut. The small intellectual community that gathered there had a distinctive character: neither a "serious Barbizon," nor an "arty Provincetown," Westport had an appealing and comfortable "grace, friendliness, gaiety and tolerance." [1] Residents and regular visitors during this period included writers F. Scott Fitzgerald (newly married to Zelda Sayre), Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Rosenfeld, Sherwood Anderson, and Hendrik Willem Van Loon, and artists Everett Shinn and Charles and Maurice Prendergast.

The cost of living may have been economical, but the town did not turn out to be the quiet haven for work the artist had anticipated:

In this prohibition period the summers at Westport, Connecticut, exceeded the riotousness of New York. There gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights. Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.[2]

Although his house had a good studio, the many convivial temptations proved irresistible to the gregarious artist. He found it necessary to retreat to the relative solitude of his New York studio in the Colonnade Building.

In 1924, he decided to leave the United States with his family; in December they sold their house in Westport and "escaped to France." With the money realized from the sale of their home and anticipated fees from occasional articles, Guy Pène du Bois hoped he could afford a year abroad. With uninterrupted time in his studio, his aim was clear: "I could become a painter." [3]

Remembering the distractions of Westport and finding Paris too expensive, the Pène du Bois family settled in Garnes, a village in the Chevreuse Valley near Dampierre, about thirty miles from the capital. Reasonable rent (eighty dollars a year), steady sales through Kraushaar, and careful economizing, enabled them to remain in France for nearly six years. This period proved to be the most productive of his career, he later recalled: "It was in Garnes that I learned to paint."[4] Working steadily, he created paintings "centered mainly on compositional themes compiled from memory and experience." [5] Only occasionally did he paint a landscape, a still life, or from a model.

Although he favored pictures of international twenties types, identifiably French themes become increasingly frequent during his expatriate years. Scenes inspired by the area near their house appear in his work, including Pont du Jour, which shows a man and a woman standing near a local viaduct. The urban milieu of Paris, however, interested him primarily, and he made frequent visits to the French capital where he occasionally went to gatherings attended by French artists; Bal des Quatres Arts, records a famous annual Parisian art event.

Like the majority of other Americans abroad, however, he had contact mostly with other Americans. Du Bois was particularly fascinated by the subject of his countrymen and women abroad, especially the many young American women he saw all over Paris. Easily identified, he painted several canvasses picturing them in public social contexts.

Parisian cafes, including La Couple, Le Sélect, La Rotonde, Les Deux Magots, and the Closerie des Lilas, were the social and intellectual centers of expatriate life. [6] Although some of them had been founded earlier, their popularity led several to expand during the twenties. One, the Café du Dôme on the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the corner of the Boulevard Raspail, was widely recognized as "the Anglo-American cafe." [7] Opened in 1898, it was popular throughout the 1920s with the many artists and writers who lived and worked in this part of the city.

While living at Garnes, Du Bois made periodic visits to America, traveled throughout France, and on occasion, visited other European countries. In June 1926, he participated in the unveiling of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's monument at Saint-Nazaire. That summer, the family vacationed at the coast, where he was inspired to paint nearby beach and racetrack scenes. Occasional commissions permitted travel outside France. A trip to Italy resulted in a major painting, Studio Window, Anticoli.

Throughout the twenties, both in America and in France, several characteristic themes absorbed Guy Pène du Bois -- the art world, cafes and restaurants, theatres and other amusements, flappers, and relationships between men and women. This last theme had long preoccupied Pène du Bois; he recalled that he had "started the series of little pictures of men and women in full dress which first drew attention to my paintings" [8] during his days as a music and opera critic. Fascinated by the nature of social discourse as conveyed through body language, he found such environments ideal. In public places he could unobtrusively study his subjects playing their social roles on privileged stage sets. The roles and interchanges he observed were as contrived and carefully constructed as in any scripted production.

As a critic and artist, Guy Pène du Bois had ample opportunities to study galleries, dealers, and patrons. With a top hat concealing his bald head, a hard-boiled gentlemen, "an old rounder," in the appropriately titled Chanticleer, strides into a red-walled gallery, where the gallery owner waits to intercept him. Such luxurious environments, which reflected the general health of the art market in the postwar economy, were designed expressly for "the captivation of tycoons,"[9] who sought to be as successful as collectors as they were in business.

The rituals and conventions of dining out had long fascinated the artist. Unlike John Sloan, who depicted the separatist masculine atmosphere found in McSorley's Bar (1912), Pène du Bois was interested in couples. In particular, he was intrigued by the lack of interpersonal discourse between the couples he saw, many of whom comprised an older man and a younger woman.

Restaurant scenes, of course, had been favorite themes of Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Pierre Auguste Renoir, all of whom Pène du Bois admired. Members of The Eight had also enjoyed painting such scenes. In Cafe Madrid, Pène du Bois depicts Chester Dale and his first wife Maud, two of his major patrons, seated at a restaurant table.[10] The presence of two bottles of champagne implies that other guests are expected to join them. Dale's wife was a painter, and together they formed a substantial collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French and American art, much of which was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art. Dale, who began buying the artist's work in the late teens, eventually owned twenty-five of his works.[11]

With the publication of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, the flapper entered the popular parlance.[12] "Flappery" represented a bold social rebellion by women -- there was no equivalent male type -- with nerve, who were identified as "shameless, selfish and honest."[13] Many of her characteristics implied, if not outright indecency, at least impropriety, as she defied social strictures placed on young women but not on young men. She smoked in public, as well as drank; one historian observed: "Cigarette in mouth and cocktail in hand, she appeared to be both shocking and unshockable."[14]

Her forum of social equality was somewhat ephemeral for it was not matched by comparable economic and political independence. Interested in neither the intellectual pursuits of the educated woman nor in a career or job, this fashionably nonchalant creature appeared self-centered, pleasure seeking, high spirited, and charmingly amusing, with a spontaneous exuberance that could also be interpreted as "fast."

Emphasizing the less giddy side of this twenties woman, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the paintings of Guy Pène du Bois provide a more ominous image of the flapper.[15] Flappers were, as Fitzgerald warned, "dangerous girls";[16] indeed one of his characters declared "I want to be a society vampire."[17] Underneath her pert exterior, the flapper was a threatening and predatory creature.

Few American artists have pictured the difficulties of negotiating relationships between men and women more sharply than Guy Pène du Bois. His frequent depictions of couples enabled him to explore the mental separation and emotional estrangement that served as an invisible barrier to discourse despite their physical proximity. Although he shared a common sensibility with Edward Hopper, who emphasized loneliness and isolation, Guy Pène du Bois was more interested in the sharp nature of social discourse than with emotional barrenness.

If the flapper had changed sexual mores, the conventions of class structure remained more rigidly prescribed, and relations between men and women were mediated under extremely difficult conditions. By way of emphasizing their rigid social roles, Guy Pène du Bois occasionally depicted his figures as mannequins, deliberately emphasizing the inflexibility of the possible courses of action open to them.

In October 1929, Guy Pène du Bois was in Nice when he learned of the disastrous stock market crash, which signaled the beginning of an international depression. As he recalled, the art market fueled by "the fantastic gush of money in senseless circulation had ceased."[18] For many expatriates, the drastic economic change automatically meant repatriation. While Pène du Bois recognized that his time abroad would soon end, he was able to remain in France another six months.

In April 1930, he arrived back in New York: "I had returned to my native city almost forgotten except among those who set me down as an expatriate and with a deep regret which had somehow combined with a temperamental inability to slide back into its rhythms."[19] New York bore little resemblance to the city he had left: "It took me a long time to get under the skin of my own people. They had become strangers to me."[20] In the years following his return to America, the artist exhibited widely and increasingly won professional recognition. To supplement the erratic sales of his paintings, he resumed writing and teaching, both of which took time away from his studio. Like many artists during this period of economic stringency, he undertook WPA commissions. The publication of his autobiography, Artists Say the Silliest Things, in 1940, marked the beginning of his final productive decade, but health problems increasingly sapped his artistic energies. By the time of his death in 1958, new art movements had made his striking work of the twenties all but forgotten.


1. Guy Pène du Bois (GPDB), Artists Say the Silliest Things (ASTST) p. 215.

2. ASTST, pp. 213-214.

3. ASTST, p. 216.

4. ASTST, p. 249.

5. ASTST, p. 251.

6. Such subjects had inspired the work of other American artists, including paintings like Soir Bleu, 1914 (Whitney Museum of American Art) by Edward Hopper and Café, Paris, 1929 (private collection) by Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891-1981). Motley, who portrayed black urban Americans, admired Pène du Bois' Americans in Paris. See Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse, The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1992).

The Parisian establishments frequented by Guy Pène du Bois inspired several important paintings, including Cafe Monnot, c. 1928-1929 (Whitney Museum of American Art), The Café, 1925 (New York, Russian Tea Room), and Pierrot Tired, c. 1927 (Corcoran Gallery of Art), which pictures a common scene in his work -- a silent couple sharing a table and a drink.

7. ASTST, p. 113.

8. ASTST, p. 128.

9. GPDB, quoted in Van Wyck Brooks, John Sloan, A Painter's Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1955): 72.

10. Although it was published in the New York Herald Tribune, 21 November 1926, as Café Madrid, Spain, I am not convinced that Spain is correctly part of the title. There was a New York restaurant named Café Madrid which opened in 1911-1912. In Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, Anita Loos also alludes to one in Paris: "so when we went to a place called the Madrid to tea and it really was devine" (p. 99). Pène du Bois was more likely to have had contact with the Dales in New York and Paris.

While the settings of several of his restaurant scenes are specifically identified, more characteristically Guy Pène du Bois preferred to create generic types, as he did with people. Typical is Restaurant No.1 and Restaurant No.2, 1924 (Art Institute of Chicago), a diptych painted before he left for France. The first depicts a single man in evening dress, while the second shows two slinky women at a table, one with her face turned away from the viewer. This is the sort of scene treated with impassive humor in a 1925 cartoon by Peter Arno published in The New Yorker, "Nightlife," (The New Yorker 1 [24 October 1925]: 17) in which a series of tables of repetitively similar dour couples is pictured. Clad in elegant evening dress, they rigidly do not converse with each other and are attended by equally indifferent waiters.

11. The Chester Dale collection included The Confidence Man, 1919 (Brooklyn Museum), Pouter Pigeon, 1922 (collection unknown), Hallway, Italian Restaurant, 1922 (National Gallery of Art), Restaurant 1 and Restaurant 2, 1924 (Art Institute of Chicago), Café du Dóme, 1925-1926 (National Gallery of Art), and La Rue de la Santé, 1928 (National Gallery of Art).

12. Although the word flapper received its fullest definition in Fitzgerald's novels of the 1920s, she had been identified by H. L. Mencken as existing by 1910. See H. L. Mencken, "American Slang," in The American Language (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931): 373; and The American Language, Supplement I (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945): 514-515. See also May, The End of American Innocence, pp. 339-340. In a Fitzgerald story, "The Offshore Pirate," a male protagonist has another character swear "on your honor as a flapper," in Flappers and Philosophers, p. 23.

13. "Flapping Not Repented Of," New York Times, 16 July 1922, reprinted in Mowry, The Twenties, p. 174.

14. William Henry Chafe, The American Woman, p. 49. See also "Women Smokers," New York Times, 19 February 1920, reprinted in Mowry, The Twenties, pp. 178-179.

15. The women depicted by Pène du Bois may wear the skinny form-fitting dress of the period, as in Opera Box, 1926 (Whitney Museum of American Art), but his amazonesque female scarcely suggests flappery. His Woman with Cigarette, 1929 (Whitney Museum of American Art) also pictures two strong, looming female figures. Their male companions are not visible, and the bulging forehead of the woman firmly holding her cigarette makes the ensemble highly disturbing. Ironically, while women wearing the latest fashions (albeit in larger sizes than the ideal) appear regularly in his paintings, only one of his canvasses specifically names the type who was the model in a title -- Flapper, 1922 (Greensboro, University of North Carolina, Weatherspoon Gallery). His single figure is decidedly inelegant, more a school girl on her way to the library than someone about to go to a cafe.

16. Fitzgerald, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," in Flappers and Philosophers, p. 116.

17. Ibid., p. 129.

18. ASTST, p. 254.

19. ASTST, p. 255.

20. ASTST, p. 256.


About the author:

Betsy Fahlman is Professor of Art History, School of Art, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ. This essay, adapted from the accompanying exhibition catalogue, was previously published in American Art Review, Volume VII, Number 5 October-November 1995, with accompanying illustrations.

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