Polk Museum exhibit poster

Most art lovers have heard of Edward Hopper and his 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” depicting a starkly furnished diner at night, its three patrons and a waiter, but Polk Museum of Art Executive Director and Chief Curator Alex Rich wants you to know about Hopper’s contemporary Guy Pène du Bois, the two men’s friendship and their shared interest in painting American life.

“They’re both artists and friends,” Rich said. “They studied at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase, and this exhibition is the first time the two of them — close friends, so much that Guy Pène du Bois was the best man in Edward Hopper’s wedding — the first time these two have ever been presented side-by-side in a museum exhibition.”

Rich said the exhibit on display now – “Edward Hopper and Guy Pène du Bois: Painting the Real” — comprises approximately 65 works, took four years to plan and coordinate, and focuses on the pair’s thematically different, but stylistically overlapping works.

“Hopper and Pène du Bois shared a deep interest in representing the evolving modern worlds around them — New York City, Paris, suburban and rural America — and each refracted those worlds through his own unique lens of Realism,” Rich said. “Both were also celebrated in their own era as masters of and authorities on American art and Realism.”

While both were born in New York – Guy Pène du Bois (pronounced Gee Pen doo Bwah) in Brooklyn and Hopper in Nyack — Pène du Bois spoke only French for the first 10 years of his life.

“Pène du Bois, surprisingly, was the better known artist in the first half of the 20th century than Edward Hopper was,” Rich said, noting that Pène du Bois was a well-known and well-respected art critic during his day.

For Rich, this exhibit is deeply personal. While he had known about both artists throughout his life, he studied them both in college.

“Actually, I wrote my undergraduate thesis in college on Edward Hopper, and I wrote my graduate dissertation for my PhD on Pène du Bois,” Rich said. “So these are my personal research interests because, based on the connection between the two artists, I started to explore them in different ways at different points in my life, and we finally bring them together in this grand exhibition here at the museum.”

Rich said that while the two friends were not constant companions, their works share similar styles.

“I think what’s so interesting is looking for that story, the way that they were not together all the time, certainly, but they lived their lives somewhere in parallel, and they were really dedicated artistic Realists, meaning that they painted scenes and drew scenes of everyday life in the world they move through — whether that’s New York City or Paris — all throughout the first decades of the 20th Century, but they stuck to Realism, even when other artists are moving into greater and greater abstraction.”

The works are on loan from the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and Crystal Bridges, along with works from private collections throughout the country.

“Edward Hopper and Guy Pène du Bois: Painting the Real” is on display until March 26 at the Polk Museum of Art, which is always free to visit.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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