26 January 2016

Alone Together: Juliana Force & Guy Pene du Bois

"Solitude does not consist of living alone; it consists in living with others, with people who take no interest in you." - excerpt from Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau  (1900), translated from the French by Douglas Jarman

History is not kind to most reputations.   Juliana Force (1876-1948) and Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958), to name just two, are no longer so well known as they were in life.   This is a more  because our collective memory is always almost full rather than from a lack of interesting material.. 

Juliana Force was the founding director of the Whitney Museum of American Art but that hasn't counted for much to historians who  have given most of the credit to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, heiress to a railroad fortune and the granddaughter of  "Commodore" Vanderbilt. Force, a private secretary with  ambition plus abundant but unfocused energy, was the daughter of a grocer from a small town in Pennsylvania.  Yet the meeting of these unlikely two in 1906 set in motion a chain of events that led to the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.  They opened the Whitney Studio Club in 1914 where their exhibitions became known for their unpredictability and their inconsistent quality.  What they shared was a fervent desire to advance American art and marriages that did not get in the way of their efforts.  

Early in her married life, Whitney realized that her husband would not be faithful and turned her energy elsewhere, while Force was so drawn to Whitney' and her circle that  that her own husband  was reduced to a background figure in her life.   Beyond that, they both suffered from slings and arrows hurled in their direction by male artists and critics.  Whitney always thought that her work as a sculptor would have been received more seriously had she been a man and that others believed the commissions that came her way were unearned, a byproduct of her wealth, while Force was labeled in unflattering terms as being ":arrogant" and even "hysterical", at least partly, I suspect, because her family lacked social standing.

Force enjoyed the trappings of art as much as art itself: she delighted in meeting artists, giving speeches, and attending exhibition openings like the one pictured above.  When Pene du Bois painted this picture of Force in 1921, he was an up-and-comer in the New York art world, having scored his first solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club just three years earlier.  The red-haired Force (her name as apt as that of a character in Pilgrim's Progress) stands, her back to the viewer, as she looks at a painting. She is wearing a dress that no faint-hearted woman would have dared at the time.   The  studio itself is clad in rich colors, another anachronism, so different from the studied neutrality of modern art galleries.

Pene du Bois was, as his name suggests, was as much a product of his French ancestry as his American upbringing.  Although he studied with William Merritt Chase (an impressionist of sorts) and then with Robert Henri (of the Ashcan School), Pene du Bois was never associated with any particular group. By necessity, he earned money by writing art and music criticism for various publications, an occupation that put him in the public spaces that he chose to depict in his paintings.

So how does  Juliana Force at the Whitney Studio Club fit into this artist's work?   In retrospect, the Pene du Bois paintings separate into two groups, one that shows smartly dressed young women strolling in public, smoking, and sitting in cafes.  The other group, including the one above, shows women and men together on social occasions, surrounded by invisible tension.  How would I describe these pictures?   It seems to me that in a Pene du Bois painting a woman is never so alone as when she is with a man, a feeling many of us know well.

Note: When Royal Cortissoz published an updated edition of Samuel Isham's influential History of American Painting in 1926, he listed Guy Pene du Bois as an important contemporary artist.  Then in 1931,  Cortissoz published a monograph on Guy Pene du Bois with a forward by Juliana Force.

For additional reading:
Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art by Avis Berman, New York, Atheneeum :1990.

Image: Guy Pene du Bois - Juliana Force at the Whitney Studio Club, 1921, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.


Hels said...

Very good question! Reputations might be great in life and fade away after death. Or previously unknown artists become famous years after death, when their works are discovered or re-interpreted. Or reputations fluctuate, seemingly randomly. Think of Rembrandt and El Greco, both dying in poverty and without recognition.

I agree the explanation lies in our full collective memory, rather than from a lack of interesting material. But it allows bad choices to be made, on aesthetic grounds and on moral grounds to do with the artist's behaviour. One artist, for example, got his buddies to pimp out their 12 year old daughters to him because he enjoyed fresh young flesh. Other artists were active members of the Nazi Party, partially because they believed in Nazism but mostly to ensure their own success in the art world.

Jane said...

Avis Berman in her book "Rebels On Eighth Street" (1990) makes the case for the importance of Juliana Force in shaping the Whitney Museum's mission but the combined magnetism of the names "Vanderbilt" and "Whitney" will always be weighed against her.

Coco said...

I don´t comment but I look forward to reading every week. So interesting - I learn something every week.

Thank you so much!

Jane said...

So nice to hear from you. Coco. So do I, or I couldn't keep on writing. The nice thing about my unpaid writing is that I get to go off the beaten path and don't have to think about what's trending at the moment. I enjoy hearing from readers so do feel free to comment at any time.

Mary Ann said...

Hi Jane. Thank you so much for your post. A 2023 exhibit in Lakeland, FL at the Polk Museum recently introduced me to Guy Pene de Bois and the image of Force really resonated with me. So much so that a few days later I looked it up online and found your wonderful post giving me new insight into the image which I adore even more now. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and research.

Jane A Librizzi said...

Welcome, Mary Ann. Thank you for your kind words. I couldn't track down the exact quote but someone compared Guy Pene du Bois paintings to F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters.