A Renoir Revelation
Large Bather. Pierre-August Renoir. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Too pink, too pretty, too pedestrian. Dismissing the paintings of Jean-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is almost a cliche. Certainly by the mid-20th century his late work was not as valued as that of his contemporaries Cezanne and Monet, among others.
Yet here is a painter who asked: "Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world."
And judging from the lines snaking around the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the French know and love this painter — and are willing to wait hours to see "Renoir in the 20th Century." Luckily, the show, which roughly covers the last three decades of the painter's life, demonstrates that Renoir, as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire said, "grows greater all the time. His latest paintings are always the most beautiful. And the most youthful."
Renoir's late work was an inspiration to another generation of painters, including Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard, whose paintings are also on view. Next year the late Renoirs will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, giving the American public a chance to weigh in with (perhaps) admiring, charitable or spiteful remarks.
"We should have a lot of fun with this show," says Philadelphia's senior curator Joe Rishel. "Renoir in critical terms has been pushed aside. Our purpose is to confront 'conventional wisdom' and give the public a chance to see the profound beauty in Renoir's late work."
Renoir was a painter who loved to paint and the work from the final three decades of his life, roughly 1880 to 1919, is among his best. Early Renoir was all about Impressionism – color, light, movement. Then a break came in the early 80s and the work became more disciplined in a crisper, drier style, reminiscent of the frescoes he admired in Pompeii. About his late works — there are close to 80 in this show, including sculpture and drawings — Renoir said: "I'm starting to know how to paint. It's taken more than fifty years to get this far, and I've not finished yet."
Girl in a Red Ruff. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Many of the sensual, sumptuous nudes in luminous interiors and landscapes in the current show are drop-dead stunning. They are a testimony to a painter whose creative juices were at their peak even in old age.
"He reasserted himself with a new kind of energy," says Richel. " Every day was Sunday, radiant and beautiful." And every child portrait, especially those knockout paintings of his younger son Claude, known as Coco, are enchanting.
At the end of his life, Renoir developed serious rheumatoid arthritis which crippled him. Yet, in a silent film from that period, you see a giggling, old grizzled man, a cigarette dangling from his lips, joking with friends, one of whom helps him hold a paint brush in fragile, injured fingers. At the time, Renoir was living in Cagnes, near Nice in the south of France in a house by the sea, a timeless Arcadian world of beauty. Here he captured feminine beauty, adorable children, man and nature in its most idyllic state.
If you wish to gauge the health of Renoir's European reputation or see the late works in a new and unexpected context, you need only go to Paris and join the line or see the show in L.A. or Philadelphia.
BOBBIE LEIGH has written for many national publications including
The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures.
Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.