Renoir's late paintings are the works the contemporary art pros love to hate and everyone else loves. Now we have an opportunity to see almost 80 of them and, perhaps, even change our opinions. Are they really too pretty, too idyllic and conservative? Or are we prejudging before looking at the actual works of art?
Oil paintings, drawings and sculpture from the last 30 years of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's life (1841"“1919) plus almost a dozen works by his noted contemporaries are currently on view at the Art Museum, and it's worth the trip. This is the traveling exhibition's last venue, and it's particularly well balanced, with a flow that maintains an easy progression through the galleries. Open your eyes, banish your pre-conceptions and enjoy the ride.
The exhibition begins in chronological order after Renoir has traveled to Italy, abandoned Impressionism and returned to painting in the more classical style of the past. Why he did this about-face is open to conjecture. Was he selling out (note Renoir's explanation that he was doing "genre painting""“ the kind that sells)? Or did he really tire of conveying the fleeting impression of something but not its actual substance?
Whatever his reasons, the Art Museum presents us with a series of intimate paintings of domestic scenes. Comely young women, primarily from Renoir's household, dressed in shimmering silks and lovely colors, and beautiful children are portrayed during quiet moments of daily life, ably fulfilling Renoir's stated purpose for painting: "to enliven the walls."
Like Tchaikovsky's music
While a rational part of me relates these images to Tchaikovsky's music"“ unforgettable but occasionally schmaltzy"“ one of them touched my heart and memory: The Artist's Son Jean Drawing (oil on canvas, 1901), now owned by the Virginia Museum of Art. This work is what Renoir is all about: He touches a chord in each of us. I hope you find yours.
Renoir's paintings of nudes become larger, more classical in pose with mythological subject matter, lightened by an Impressionist palette for the background. Are these an old man's nostalgic memories of love and lust, or an urge to compete with giants of the past centuries?
Renoir even branches out to sculpture, working with Richard Guino, a Spanish sculptor, beginning in 1913 when his arthritis limited his ability to model monumental figures. Although Renoir maintained a studio in Paris, by the last three decades of his life he was spending winters in the south of France and reflecting the golden sunlight in his paintings, a contrast to the silvery light of Paris. A gallery of his landscape paintings from there is punctuated by a Bonnard painting of 1923. Look closely and compare.
In the midst of all this joy and beauty, encountering Picasso's Woman with a White Hat (1921), from the Musée de l'Orangerie, was a welcome antidote. I wanted to cheer or just stand there feasting my eyes on a figure that was not concerned about the beauty of full-rounded breasts and curving hips but was interested in the solidity of a form and how it works. Renoir claimed that painting was "made to beautify," whereas Picasso redefined beauty forever, I hope.
Renoir wasn't introspective, but his Self Portrait is an intimate evocation of an aging man. His portrait of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel (1910), conveys their bonding and depth of friendship. I was properly impressed to read that Durand-Ruel had purchased nearly 1,300 works from Renoir, a rarity these days. Jean as a Huntsman (1910) is a masterpiece of portraiture and would win first prize in any exhibition.
The exhibition ends with Renoir's last large painting of nudes, The Bathers (1918-19), which he described as a "springboard for future research." Look at it carefully, noting the Impressionist landscape and loose brushstrokes for the nudes. Since French avant garde artists such as Pierre Matisse were collecting Renoir's works, was Matisse inspired by them to return to a more contemporary vision?
Bathers in contrast
When you leave the exhibition, cross in front of the grand staircase to the gallery entrance opposite. Go straight back to the reflecting pool and Cézanne's Great Bathers and look to the left for Renoir's Large Bathers (1884-87). These monumental classical figures are extremely smooth and studied in contrast to the joyous freedom of Renoir's last works.
The final two galleries present a rare intimate view of the artist and his peers through photographs and even a silent film of Renoir painting at an easel. And, no, he didn't have to have the brush tied to his hand. Despite his bandages and pain, Renoir actually held the brush"“ but I wish we could have seen the results of his brush strokes on the canvas.♦
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