Illustrator Profile: William Pène du Bois

 

William Pène du Bois’ whimsical illustrations and beloved cast of characters made serious themes accessible and engaging for children. The American author and illustrator is among a select few who have been presented with both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. 


 

A long line of artists and designers.

William Pène du Bois seemed destined to follow a creative path. Since his du Bois ancestors moved from France to New Orleans in 1738, each generation has included a painter, architect, or designer. His parents were Guy Pène du Bois, the famed painter, art critic, and teacher, and Florence Sherman, a fashion designer for children’s clothing. William’s older sister Yvonne became a painter, and their cousin Margot Tomes became a children’s book illustrator. Raoul Pène du Bois, another cousin, became a prolific costume and set designer for the theater, crafting materials for Broadway productions such as Doctor Jazz (1975) and Sugar Babies (1979).

 
William Pène du Bois and Raoul Pène du Bois, Tights and Makeup, 21 circus-themed illustrations, watercolor, pen and ink, circa 1935.
William Pène du Bois and Raoul Pène du Bois, Tights and Makeup, 21 circus-themed illustrations, watercolor, pen and ink, circa 1935. Sold for $3,640 in September 2016.
   

Early Life

Pène du Bois was born in Nutley, New Jersey in 1916. When he was eight years old, the family moved to France, where he became captivated by the French circus, a theme in several of his books, including an unpublished work produced in collaboration with his cousin Raoul, which sold in the September 2016 Illustration Art sale at Swann.

The family returned to New Jersey when he was fourteen. After high school and encouraged by the successful sale and publication of his first book in 1936, Elisabeth, the Cow Ghost, Pène du Bois declined a scholarship to study architecture so that he could pursue a career as an author-illustrator instead. By the time he entered the army in March 1941, he had written and illustrated five more children’s books. While stationed in Bermuda until 1945, Pène du Bois worked as a correspondent for Yank and other magazines. He later became a founding art editor of The Paris Review in 1953. In addition to his own works, Pène du Bois would also illustrate editions of books by notable authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Roald Dahl.


       

Awards & Honors

The Twenty-One Balloons

Pène du Bois was awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal for The Twenty-One Balloons (1947). The fantasy-adventure story, now a classic, describes a fabulous voyage around the world in a hot-air balloon through clever narration and charming illustrations, one of which came to auction in an Illustration Art sale at Swann in December 2017.


   
William Pène du Bois, illustration for interior story and cover (with a variation in typography) of Lion, mixed media, including pen, ink, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 1956
William Pène du Bois, illustration for interior story and cover (with a variation in typography) of Lion, mixed media, including pen, ink, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 1956. Estimate $600 to $900—to be offered in our forthcoming Spring 2020 Illustration Art auction.
   

Bear Party and Lion

He was also awarded two Caldecott Honors for Bear Party (1951) and Lion (1956). Two illustrations for a double-page spread in Lion will come across the block in the next Illustration Art sale at Swann. The illustrations show the evolving prototype of a lion, which is being designed and perfected by a foreman at an animal factory before it is created and sent to earth. What starts out as a silly looking multi-colored striped creature eventually becomes the regal animal we know today.


   
William Pène du Bois, illustration for Lion, mixed media, including pen, ink, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 1956.
William Pène du Bois, illustration for Lion, mixed media, including pen, ink, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 1956. Estimate $600 to $900—to be offered in our forthcoming Spring 2020 Illustration Art auction.
   

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Re-imagining Classic Fables

A selection of illustrations from The Hare and the Tortoise & The Tortoise and the Hare (1972), a re-imagining of Aesop’s classic fable, will also be offered in the next Illustration Art sale. The first story, written by Pène du Bois, adopts the traditional narrative of the arrogant hare competing against the tortoise, who, not content with being dull and reliable, is surprisingly adventurous in her efforts to cross the finish line. In the second story, Lee Po reverses the narrative by casting the tortoise as sly and villainous in his attempts to entrap the hare. Pène du Bois’ watercolors enliven the classic tale, especially with his psychedelic 1970s depictions of the tortoise’s undersea realm.


   
William Pène du Bois, Hare in Sea Anemone. From The Hare and the Tortoise and The Tortoise and the Hare, group of 16 illustrations, mixed media, including pen, ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 1972.
William Pène du Bois, Hare in Sea Anemone. From The Hare and the Tortoise and The Tortoise and the Hare, group of 16 illustrations, mixed media, including pen, ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 1972. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000—to be offered in our forthcoming Spring 2020 Illustration Art auction.
   

In another moralizing project, Pène du Bois describes the dangers of vanity in Pretty Pretty Peggy Moffitt (1968), from which a selection of illustrations will also be offered in the next Illustration Art sale. The tale follows a young girl who distractedly admires her beauty in all of the reflective surfaces she passes instead of watching where she is going. She gets bumped, bruised, and battered as she stumbles through life until an ill-timed tumble into a coal chute brings her to her senses.

The story is based on the fashion model Peggy Moffitt, whose distinctive heavy eye makeup and “five-point” Vidal Sassoon hairstyle contributed to her status as a style icon of the 1960s. Her signature mod look was the inspiration for Rudi Gernreich, who designed all of her fashionable outfits in the book.

As both artist and author, William Pène du Bois captivated generations of readers with his unique combination of humor, imagination, and whimsical elegance.


   
William Pène du Bois, Falling Down a Coal Chute, from Pretty Pretty Peggy Moffitt, group of 14 illustrations, pen, ink and watercolor on paper, 1968. Estimate $3,000 to $4,000—to be offered in our forthcoming Spring 2020 Illustration Art auction.
 
 

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