The Artful Traveler: Renoir at The Frick Collection
Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
Where can you see a world where everyone is happy, healthy, and meticulously dressed in the latest fashion? Nine iconic Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings at The Frick Collection fit the bill. They are Renoir’s gift to us. Forget about the criticisms you are likely to hear—too sensual, too sunny, too superficial. Critics during the painter’s lifetime (1841-1919) and even today can be surprisingly harsh.
In a 1904 interview Renoir remarked that he had sent works to the Salon (the official state-sponsored painting exhibitions) “ for twenty years and at least half the time my paintings were mercilessly refused. “ Considered radical for his time, Renoir broke the rules by working outside of the studio and painting everyday scenes in bright luminous colors and quick brush strokes. Degas called Renoir’s paintings “puffy as cotton wool.” One of the more hostile reviews referred to Renoir’s figures as little more than “imperceptible clouds.” And more recently, in a show of late works by the artist at LACMA in 2010, one critic labeled the show “mostly an annoying array of often cloying painting.”
Yet in our age of anxiety, some heavy doses of Renoir escapism are welcome. Only delight comes from viewing the Frick show, “ Renoir, Impressionism and Full-Length Painting.” The standout is “The Umbrellas,” probably begun in 1881 and finished in 1885. Just sit on the bench in front of this rainy-day painting, and you see the best of Renoir. One the right, a woman with her two young, daughters, is painted with a fairly light palette and feathery strokes. On the left, a tall young woman, a “modiste” or milliner’s assistant, carries a hat box that she will probably deliver later in the day to a fashionable client. She is shielded from the rain by a debonair, well-dressed gentleman in starched collar and cuffs.
Renoir, whose father was a tailor and mother, a seamstress, was a true fashionista. The mother in “Umbrellas” wears a blue two-piece outfit with a high collar and bustle in the back. Her hat is a mass of feathers and ribbons while her boots have little gold buttons on the side. Her two daughters are as soigné as their mother with their fancy feathered and ribboned bonnets. The young woman with beautiful brown eyes on the left, unlike everyone else in the painting, is a shop girl, not an aristocrat. She wears no gloves, no hat, carries no umbrella and her outfit is fairly severe, sober, and plain. She is painted in a harder edged style more in tune with how Renoir painted after his initial Impressionist works.
In the background various people beneath what appears to be 12 umbrellas seem to be enjoying the rain. It’s clearly not a downpour, but a gentle, mild, rain soon to be followed by (one hopes) by rainbows. When the painting was shown in New York City shortly after it was finished, critic Roger Riordan (1848-1904) observed that “Renoir spoiled several of his pictures by tawdry backgrounds and accessories… His large upright of a “Rainy Day” [Umbrellas original name) is disappointing only because of the flatness of one of the faces.” Another critic also ridiculed “Rainy Day” because of its “indigo people in the rain.” Luckily, the masterpiece ended up in the National Gallery in London hanging along with the Old Masters Renoir admired.
The three 1883 paintings of dancing couples are equally engaging. Here too we get a lot of social context. “Dance in the City,” shows an elegant young couple in a formal marble salon with potted palms, probably waltzing . The young woman with elbow length white (kid?) gloves wears a gown that even Vera Wang would envy. It is a poufy white silk or perhaps satin ball gown. “Dance in the Country,” depicts a young couple on a terrace, twirling beneath chestnut trees. The red-cheeked smiling female dancer wears a bright red straw hat and is clearly having a great time. Maybe the couple is dancing a fast polka as his straw hat has ended up on the ground.
“Dance at Bougival” is widely considered the most romantic of the dance paintings as the couple seem caught in a moment of rapture. She has her hand wrapped around his neck while he holds her tightly around the waist. According to the catalog, wearing ungloved hands and the proximity of the dancers’ faces was considered “audacious” in the 19th century. The five other full-length paintings in this show are all considered masterpieces of Impressionism. Each demonstrates the painter’s commitment to depicting various aspects of Parisian life at the turn of the century.
It is a good idea to order timed tickets online at www.frick.org or call Telecharge at 212-239-6299. Subject to availability, same day and advance timed tickets may be obtained at the Frick’s admission desk. The Renoir paintings are on view through May 13, 2012. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street.