‘Late Renoir’ at the Art Museum (2nd review)

The rebel in winter: What became of Renoir

Renoir's 'Large Bather' (1905): A rebel who loved pretty things.
Renoir's 'Large Bather' (1905): A rebel who loved pretty things.

The exhibition "Renoir in the 20th Century"— or, as we know it, "Late Renoir"— is now about halfway through its run, so this may be a good time to take stock of what we've learned.

Studying this Renoir has always been somewhat problematic. The great painter holds a revolutionary's credentials as a charter member of the Impressionist movement, but even there he's a bit of a question mark.

There is Manet, the pre-eminent Painter of Modern Life (although Baudelaire as art critic coined this description for Constantine Guys), who is all reportage. Manet paints the sea battle between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama off of Cherbourg. Was he there? Did it matter?

Manet certainly wasn't in Mexico for the execution of Maximilian, but he painted it. He painted dead matadors, fat men enjoying their beers and Paris society (Baudelaire too!) schmoozing in the Tuileries. Manet is Impressionism as the apotheosis of the moment.

Renoir also painted boatmen enjoying their lunch and Parisians having a night out at the Moulin de la Galette, but everything is so pretty! If Renoir's boatmen stink, they stink of eau-de-cologne. Even as sure-shot a subject as a crowd of Parisians huddled under their umbrellas in a shower becomes a symphony of pearly grays in Renoir's hands, with a wistful little girl to solicit oohs and ahhs from viewers.

Who needs a subject?

And then there is Monet— "only an eye," as Degas once remarked, "but my God, what an eye!" Monet is Impressionism uncut— pure visual effects, types of light, times of day.

Unlike Manet, Monet doesn't need a subject. Any old haystack will do. He and Renoir are the great survivors of Impressionism, painting well into the time of the Cubists and the Surrealists. As Monet's sight begins to fail, he stumbles onto Abstract Expressionism as his obsessive paintings of lilies floating in his pond at Giverny become more and more swirls of color.

Renoir did his share of landscapes, too. In fact, my favorite Renoir painting is a landscape: Path Leading Through Tall Grass. This early work (painted in mid-1870s) isn't so far from Monet's work— except that Renoir has a more delicate, feathery touch. But as Renoir's career progressed, even his landscapes took on a glazed look, like the landscapes you sometimes find on 19th-Century china.

So, where is all this leading?

The fate of revolutions

"Late Renoir" teaches us two things. The first is that revolutions— be they political or artistic— are not perpetual motion machines. They tend to run out of steam and, like the serpent swallowing its tail, they end pretty much where they began. Renoir's late paintings have a different technique, but in spirit they aren't much different from those Salon paintings that the Impressionists (Renoir too!) rejected at first.

The second thing we learn is that after great disasters people tend to fall back on mental comfort food. World War I may have been a great adventure for America's youth, but for European nations it was an apocalypse that consumed a generation and kicked the props out from under a social and political order that had survived for centuries.

In the Art Museum's recent Picasso show, this tendency in the arts to regain a sense of balance and sanity was referred to as rappel Ó  l'ordre, or "call to order." Classicism was comfort food. Thus in the 1920s Grecian gods, nymphs and shepherds and shepherdesses made a belated and, as it turned out, short-lived return.

"'Pretty things' as his constant

For Renoir this shift in taste wasn't such a stretch. No one could accuse his response to changing tastes as fascist, because Renoir's Classicism lacks virility. Rather, late Renoir is "pretty-in-pink" writ large, with nudes who resemble sculpted custard. The painter of pretty boatmen always liked beautiful things, and "decorative beauty" was something to be prized, not shunned.

At the close of "Late Renoir" we encounter a film loop showing an aged, incredibly frail-looking Renoir still plying his art. By this time he was fêted by artists who you might think would hold the old man in low regard. In an adjoining gallery we find photographs and documents confirming the high regard in which Matisse and even Picasso held Renoir. The revolutionary had become a celebrity.♦

To read another review by Anne R. Fabbri, click here.
To read another review by Judith Stein, click here.
To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.

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