Pène du Bois descended from French immigrants who settled in Louisiana in 1738 and was raised in a Creole household. He was born in 1984 in Brooklyn, NY and first studied with William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art and later continued his training with Robert Henri. Pène du Bois was greatly impressed with Henri's credo that "real life" was subject matter for art and throughout his life a realist philosophy informed his art as well as his parallel career, art criticism. In 1905, Pène du Bois made his first visit to Paris where he painted scenes of fashionable people in cafes rendered in the dark tonalities and impasto associated with the Ashcan School. By 1920, he had achieved his mature style, which was characterized by stylized, rounded, almost sculptural figures painted with invisible brushstrokes. The subjects of his paintings were often members of society whom he gently satirized.
In 1924, Pène du Bois and his wife, Floy, left for France where they would remain until 1930. Returning to America showcases pictures the artist produced after this very productive period abroad. After five years of living in France, Pène du Bois was able to observe American life with fresh eyes. His work becomes more psychologically intense and less satirical. In Girl at Table a slender, blond is shown gazing at a small statue that she holds at arm's distance. The meaning is elusive, but a powerful sense of longing is evoked. Similarly, paintings such as Dramatic Moment and Jane are taut with unresolved dialogue. Both pictures depict mysterious interiors in which a lone woman anxiously awaits the denouement of a suspenseful scene. Other pictures, for example, Chess Tables, Washington Square and Bar, New Orleans, recall Pene du Bois's Ashcan origins in their depiction of urban entertainment.
During this period, landscape becomes an important subject for Pène du Bois. Girl Sketching and Girl in Deck Chair both situate the female subject in bucolic outdoor settings. Deserted Garden and Road under Hurricane Tree are pure landscapes.
A lesser known aspect of Pène du Bois's career is his involvement with the WPA projects. In 1937 Pène du Bois received a WPA mural commission to depict John Jay at His Home for the post office in Rye, N.Y. John Jay Study, which features Chief Justice John Jay's homestead, is a study for this series of still extant murals. In the 1950s, Pène du Bois's declining health substantially limited the number of pictures produced.