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The Artful Traveler: Renoir at The Frick Collection

The Umbrellas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c. 1881–85 Oil on canvas The National Gallery, London

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.

Dance in the City, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883 Oil on canvas Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883 Oil on canvas Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“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.


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.

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