Some years ago, as I approached the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a parade of third or fourth graders led by an adult male came between the entrance and me. They lined up facing Huntington Avenue, and held up badly lettered, inelegantly worded signs denouncing Pierre-Auguste Renoir—I remember “Renoir Sucks,” among other equally literate phrases—and demanding that all works by the artist be immediately taken off exhibition. I had heard about this bizarre one-man cross-country campaign, which attracted some baffled media attention at the time. Faced with the underage demonstrators in Boston that day, I wondered if the kids co-opted for the event knew anything about Renoir’s art or had ever seen any of it, and I considered, unkindly, whether the instigator of the protest was a failed artist.

Yet, loopy as the anti-Renoir effort was, it wasn’t wholly unexpected. Renoir (1841–1919) seems to be the one artist associated with Impressionism who isn’t beyond criticism. Quite the contrary, it’s rather fashionable to disparage him. I’ve heard his work deprecated as “saccharine,” his subject matter deplored as “those fat ladies.” Feminists fault him for presenting the female body for delectation and for visually suggesting the pleasure of a caress. Of course, his attitude towards women, by most reports, fell spectacularly short of present-day standards. His answer to a journalist who asked how he managed to paint with hands crippled by arthritis—“I paint with my prick”—doesn’t help.

And before someone points out that these enthusiasts are all male, it’s worth noting that Berthe Morisot was a supporter, too.

But Henri Matisse admired Renoir’s pictures enormously, so much so that on moving to the South of France, near Renoir’s home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, he began a close friendship with the septuagenarian artist, painted on his property, and showed him his work. (Renoir didn’t much like the younger man’s efforts but said that, since Matisse could use black without its looking like a hole in the canvas, he was a “real painter.”) Pierre Bonnard was a fan, as was Pablo Picasso, who owned several important Renoirs. Georges Braque had a reproduction of a Renoir nude on his studio wall. The art historian Julius Meier-Graefe, an avid supporter of Modernism, esteemed Renoir as much or more than he did Paul Cézanne. Such dedicated collectors as Albert Barnes and Sterling Clark acquired Renoir in depth, while Duncan Phillips, when he sought a key work to lure visitors to his new museum of modern art, paid an extravagant price for Renoir’s delicious image of young people enjoying themselves on a summer afternoon, The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81). And before someone points out that these enthusiasts are all male, it’s worth noting that Berthe Morisot was a supporter, too.

Over the last few years, two informative, thoughtfully selected exhibitions—one dedicated to Renoir’s life-size vertical figure paintings organized by the Frick Collection, the other a survey of his late work organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art—helped to clarify perceptions of this most problematic of Impressionists. The Frick show brought to life Renoir’s aspiration to combine Impressionism’s interest in light and the life of the times with his own passion for the legacy of the Old Masters, a quest underscored by the presence, not far away, of the Frick’s paintings by Veronese, Velázquez, and Bronzino, among others. The Philadelphia show suggested what Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, and Meier-Graefe might have found so admirable by emphasizing Renoir’s extraordinarily inventive color and his bold, varied paint handling in the last decade or so of his life.

Pierre Bonnard, Reclining Nude, 1927, Oil on canvas.

Now, to commemorate the centennial of his death, “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” a collaboration between the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, offers a fresh and stimulating view of the painter.1 By concentrating on a single subject—the human figure (usually the nude human figure)—the exhibition’s curators, Esther Bell, Chief Curator at the Clark, and George T. M. Shackelford, Deputy Director of the Kimbell, make clear the evolution of Renoir’s approach from his student years to the year of his death, telling the story with some stunningly impressive loans from public and private collections in North and South America, Europe, and Asia, including significant works from both organizing museums. The wide-ranging exhibition situates Renoir among the artists he admired and strove to emulate, compares him to his peers and contemporaries, and samples those whom he influenced. We are shown the artist whole and in sharp focus, over his entire career, and along the way we are also alerted to his originality and independence of mind. And there’s a handsome catalogue with illuminating essays by the curators and several other Renoir scholars.

The wide-ranging exhibition situates Renoir among the artists he admired and strove to emulate, compares him to his peers and contemporaries, and samples those whom he influenced.

Renoir was formally trained at the rigorous, traditional École des Beaux-Arts, as well as at the studio of the neoclassicist Charles Gleyre, where he met and befriended Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. But his real aesthetic education was at the Louvre. His family lived nearby, and he began to frequent the galleries early on, filling notebooks with drawings of the collections as a very young teenager apprenticed to a firm of porcelain decorators. Renoir recalled that the lucid forms of Greek and Roman sculpture attracted him first, but he soon discovered the Venetian painters of the Renaissance and Peter Paul Rubens and was impressed by their virtuoso paint handling and intense color. At the Clark, we first meet Renoir in the museum’s own self-portrait, painted when he was in his early thirties, but the installation immediately moves backward in time and shifts our attention to formal considerations rather than biography. We are confronted by first-hand evidence of the type of work that shaped the young artist, including a fluid Rubens oil sketch of the Three Graces. We see the twenty-ish Renoir’s response in his copy of a vast Rubens from the cycle commissioned by Marie de Medici, a small canvas packed with busy nudes, with lively reds and blues. Nearby, we encounter some of the youthful painter’s ambitious, full-length, realist nudes, contextualized by signature works from established artists of his own time, painters whom he admired and pitted himself against: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s suave reclining nymph, Eugène Delacroix’s broadly sketched Andromeda (1852, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and Gustave Courbet’s earthy seated bathers. Together, they help clarify the origins of Renoir’s early nudes, although the story also includes the influence of the classical past. His suggestive Boy with a Cat (1868, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a pearly skinned adolescent peering over his shoulder, is like a vertical version of the well-known sculpture of a sleeping Hermaphroditus; the voluptuous, sturdy young woman in Bather with a Griffon (1870, Museu de Arte de São Paulo) is posed like a celebrated Venus by Praxiteles. But the boy is clearly a modern, naked teenager who snuggles a tabby cat, not a semi-mythological creature from antiquity, and the standing bather, with her little dog, is just as evidently a woman of her times, clutching the garments she has just removed, watched by her clothed friend who reclines behind her. Courbet’s brash realism and his varied paint handling inform both pictures, while in Bather with a Griffon, his controversial image of two half-clad young women reclining on a riverbank, is more present than the classical Venus invoked by the pose.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bather with a Griffon, 1870, Oil on canvas.

Renoir sought official recognition with these early paintings, which he submitted to the Salon. (Bather with a Griffon was, in fact, accepted at the Salon of 1870, but derided.) He would continue to send works to the famously conservative official exhibit, even after he was participating regularly in the “alternative” shows organized by his friends the “New Painters,” later known as the Impressionists. It has even been suggested that Renoir’s affiliation with these daring progressives was provoked less by common attitudes than by the successive rejections of the large canvases he submitted to the establishment exhibition. When he finally had works accepted fairly consistently by the Salon, from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s, he no longer showed with the Impressionists, claiming that participation in the official exhibit was more beneficial to his career.

Yet “Renoir: The Body, The Senses” makes it clear that he was aesthetically allied with the Impressionists through his fascination with the way light plays on the skin of young women and dissolves the world around them. A series of half-length nude and semi-clothed figures explores the effect of sunlight on flesh in a variety of ways, the most extreme being Study. Torso of a Young Woman in the Sunlight (1875–76, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), in which ribbony, flickering strokes of dark and light green, suggesting tall grasses and foliage, threaten to merge with the light-dappled form of the full-breasted, dark-haired sitter. (Hostile critics, when the painting was first exhibited, interpreted the play of light and shadow, perversely, as decay; others admired it.)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Study. Torso of a Young Woman in the Sunlight, 1875–76, Oil on canvas.

But the notable differences between Renoir and his most adventurous contemporaries are also made evident. Witness the pairing of Renoir’s crowds of agile bathers teasing each other with a crab and Edgar Degas’ sober groups of reclining nudes, for example, all executed in pastel between about 1895 and 1900. Degas’ sprawled, androgynous, monumental figures are seen from unexpected viewpoints, daringly cropped, and seemingly fused with the ambiguous expanse of repeated strokes. Renoir’s cavorting girls are unequivocally feminine and playful; naturalistically depicted in terms of form, but with heightened color, they move easily in their landscape setting. Renoir’s keen, possibly lascivious appreciation of the physicality of his subjects and their place in the world is very different from Degas’ dispassionate transformation of his models into near-abstractions pressed against the boundaries of the support. Still another attitude is represented by two small paintings of bathers by Renoir’s friend Paul Cézanne, one formerly owned and treasured by Matisse, the other the equivocal Battle of Love (ca. 1880, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), once in Renoir’s own collection, both constructions in which the visual weight and significance of the planes of figures and setting seem almost interchangeable. Degas and Cézanne saw their work, however radical, as seamlessly connected to the long history of art, but these groupings emphasize Renoir’s somewhat different attitude toward the past: his allegiance to traditional ways of suggesting form, a residue, perhaps of his early interest in classical sculpture.

An illuminating section dedicated to “decorative” works expands on this idea by examining Renoir’s relationship to the legacy of French Rococo painting. An appetite for works designed purely for visual delight had been stimulated by the mid-nineteenth-century publication of the Goncourt brothers’ paean to eighteenth-century French art, along with the Louvre’s acquisition of François Boucher’s Diana Leaving Her Bath (1742), a pair of creamy nudes and a flurry of drapery, described, when it entered the Louvre, as “silken and silvery” and, happily, included in Williamstown. Renoir recalled that the Boucher was among the first paintings to capture his attention and one that he continued to admire. “Decorative,” in this context, is not pejorative, but refers to images not obviously connected to the life of the times or to coherent locations. Renoir’s Little Blue Nude (ca. 1878–79, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY), with her crossed leg and blue and white drapery, against a loosely stroked, indeterminate landscape, seems haunted by Boucher’s image of the goddess, absent the mythology. Prompted by Boucher and Renoir’s enthusiasm for him, we begin to think freshly about the exhibition’s wealth of dreamy, seated bathers beside the sea, all firm, luminous flesh, bold breasts, and cascading hair. The Clark’s own Blonde Bather (1881), for example, her only attachment to modernity a wedding ring, starts to become a surrogate goddess, not just a sensual portrait of the painter’s young future wife.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Three Right Figures and Part of a Foot (Study for The Great Bathers), ca. 1884–87, Red chalk and heightening on paper.

Renoir’s late work is splendidly represented by canvases of seated and reclining figures painted after 1900. His version of modernity is evident in the way ample bodies, made luminous by layers of transparent color, set off by more roughly stroked backgrounds, are made to relate to the geometry of the canvas without losing their identities as unequivocal emblems of female-ness. Witness the heroic proportions of Seated Bather (1914, Art Institute of Chicago). We read her subtly stroked, massive limbs almost as independent elements, compelled to pay more attention to the way she is constructed and fitted into the rectangle of the canvas than to any implication of desire or to the suggestion of landscape and the distant sister bathers behind her.

A well-known film clip, not on view in Williamstown, shows [Renoir] working with brushes tied to his hands.

Renoir’s range of touches and his command of color dominate many of the late paintings, so much so that subject matter is almost subsumed by pure painting. We are first engaged by the swirl of greens and golds around the pale flesh and scribbly white drapery of Bather Seated in a Landscape, Called Eurydice (1902–04, Musée Picasso Paris), only later taking in her hefty arms and legs and her substantial haunches. Similarly, emphatic stabs and swipes of the brush and gorgeously orchestrated broken color—evocative of patterned cloth, flowers, and landscape—demand as much of our attention as the clothed protagonists of The Concert (1918–19, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) and the pair of floating, pillowy, reclining nudes in The Bathers (1918–19, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The exhibition’s late works also include an ample (no pun intended) selection of Renoir’s large sculptures of generously proportioned nudes, made with the assistance of the Catalan sculptor Richard Guino. The painter is said to have turned to sculpture late in life because of his crippled hands, although he obviously continued to paint vigorously until his death, as the last works at the Clark attest; a well-known film clip, not on view in Williamstown, shows him working with brushes tied to his hands.

“Renoir: The Body, The Senses” ends with works by artists who either esteemed him, knew him, and/or collected his work, including Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Fernand Léger, and Suzanne Valadon. They add seasoning to the show and can even make us try to see Renoir through the eyes of his admiring colleagues. But the heart of the exhibition, alone worth the visit whatever your position on the artist’s attitude towards women, is a gallery filled with magnificent life-sized red, black, and white chalk drawings, ca. 1884–87, part of a series of about twenty made in preparation for the three main figures in The Great Bathers (1884–87, Philadelphia Museum of Art). (The painting itself is regrettably absent because it cannot travel.) These lavish images are supplemented by similarly generous chalk drawings related to other paintings, cumulatively overthrowing the popular belief that all Impressionist painting was done spontaneously, on the spot, without premeditation. These rarely (if ever) exhibited works reveal Renoir’s thinking as he adjusted poses, raising or lowering an arm, subtly altering the angle of a head, or turning a figure slightly in space. We watch as he suggests pale flesh with urgent strokes of red chalk around untouched paper and as he searches for eloquent contours with superimposed inquiring lines. Berthe Morisot apparently saw a group of Renoir’s large preparatory drawings in his studio and thought it would be exciting to exhibit them. She was right.

1 “Renoir: The Body, The Senses” opened at the Clark Institute on June 8 and remains on view through September 22, 2019. The exhibition will also be seen at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (October 27, 2019–January 26, 2020).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 1, on page 43
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