La Rue de la Santé was executed during Pène du Bois's lengthy stay in France from 1924 to 1929. Its dimensions are considerably larger than usual for the artist, a feature shared by many of the works that he painted at his studio in Garnes, a town about 40 kilometers from Paris. Like Café du Dôme, the painting represents a characteristic aspect of Parisian street life.
In his monograph on the artist, Royal Cortissoz singled out La Rue de la Santé for discussion because he thought it exemplified Pène du Bois's “flair for character.” Describing it as “a picture in which a young man and a young woman stand talking together near a street lamp, in inclement weather,” he continued:
The issue between the two is not apparent. There is no drama to be surmised. Here is no “painted anecdote.” But for the life of me I cannot withhold my interest from whatever the talkers are discussing. The air of Parisian life is about them. What they are doing may be of no serious import whatever but these people are themselves, two significant creatures out of the great human spectacle. They are emphatically not examples of that wearisome phase of modern art, the phase which reduces men and women to the common denominator of still life. The man has personality and so has the woman. Their encounter may not be momentous but neither can it be quite purposeless.
Probably for the sake of propriety Cortissoz refrained from saying the obvious, namely that the context of this shadowy evening encounter on a rainy Parisian street is in all likelihood a prostitute negotiating with a potential client.
The heavily made-up, robust woman stands at a street corner in the center of the composition facing the viewer and speaks to a man who stands at her left side. The impression that they are negotiating an illicit transaction is enhanced by the gloomy nocturnal ambience and their position in the shadows cast by the two street lamps at the upper left. Visible in a pentimento, the artist had initially intended to imply a more intimate relationship between the two figures by representing the man with his arm around the woman. The woman's assertive pose, with her hands on her hips, had previously been used by other artists in images of prostitutes. Here it imbues her with a brazen quality that contrasts with the man's slightly bent form. A solitary pedestrian is visible in the distant left background.
The artist set the scene in a bleak neighborhood. Located in the 14th arrondissement on the Left Bank of the Seine in Montparnasse, La Rue de la Santé is named after the Sainte-Anne hospital, which became a psychiatric hospital in 1867. The tall wall in the background of this painting belongs to La Santé prison, one of the most infamous jails in France, which was built in 1867. Public executions by guillotine were held near the prison’s main entrance at the intersection of La Rue de la Santé and Boulevard Arago from 1909 until the practice was banned in 1939.
Depicting difficult, taboo subjects was part and parcel of the realistic aesthetic espoused by Pène du Bois’s teacher Robert Henri (American, 1865 - 1929) and other members of The Eight. Pène du Bois had dealt with the theme of prostitution at the outset of his journalistic career, when his first assignment as a fledgling reporter for the New York American had been to cover the Tenderloin Police Station, located in the center of New York's red-light district. This was the same area that John Sloan (American, 1871 - 1951) had featured in his paintings depicting New York's commercial sex industry, two of which Pène du Bois illustrated in his book on Sloan. In his autobiography Pène du Bois reminisced about a 1906 sketch in which he had “recorded the Tenderloin girls in large plumed hats and bedraggled fineries standing limply or defiantly before the police lieutenant's bar.” The artist continued:
These pictures, with a few exceptions, were rarely if ever shown. They gave my mother many unhappy moments. She was very far from being a prude but could believe, when off guard, that beauty, by a curious confusion of issues, must pay heed to proprieties. A canvas of that period, although finished somewhat later, showing two of these girls standing among lawyers or bondsmen in the entrance of the old Jefferson Market Police Court, is now owned by the Newark Museum. Its title, was far more definite originally, has now been disarmingly changed to “Lobby.” I write this in justification of my mother's qualms.
La Rue de la Santé and Pène du Bois’s other depictions of prostitution present their theme in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of moralizing. Illuminating the nocturnal shadow world of modern urban society, these works are comparable to the photographs of Parisian street life by Eugène Atget (French, 1857 - 1927) from the early 1920s and anticipate slightly later images by Brassaï (French, born Transylvania, 1899 - 1984) that were published in Paris de nuit (1933).
A confirmed Francophile, Pène du Bois attributed his predilection for such subjects to his affinity for French culture. In his autobiography he equated the American national character with Puritanism and complained how through “the Puritan habit of denying and disguising facts, a people can become blind to the marks that life leaves upon its own kind,” and railed against “the moral and sentimental fictions of a smug or cowardly middle class.” He later digressed on how the Anglo-Saxon American strain of Puritanism “is more at home in a fictitious than in a real world.” He compared the average American to the more urbane Frenchman, who “meets life on its own terms” and for whom “morality is a matter of efficiency.” Pène du Bois agreed with those who called him a “Frenchman living in America,” and admired what he perceived as the more worldly French character:
It may be that I have grown up enough to prefer life to the child's fairy tale by which one escapes from it. Things should be acceptable, tangible. I am terribly bored by lies told in righteous hypocrisy for the good of the people, by the devices of a civilization which complacently refuses to accept itself, by happy endings and characterless glamour girls and all other fictions invented for the solace of escapists.
August 17, 2018