Monday, October 8, 2007

A New Wave

Seascape, 1879, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 39 1/16 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago; Potter Palmer Collection. © The Art Institute of Chicago

Back in 2004, I found myself looking at and being disappointed by the PMA’s exhibit Manet and the Sea, when I came upon Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Seascape (above) among the “other” works to provide context for Edouard Manet’s maritime works. That painting left an indelible impression on my mind, and perhaps on the mind of some others involved in the design of the current PMA exhibit in which it returns, Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883. Created through the cooperation of the PMA, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the National Gallery, London, the exhibit and catalogue to Renoir Landscapes will open your eyes and see Renoir in a whole new light.

Springtime (in Chatou), 1872-73, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 23 ¼ x 29 1/8 inches. Private collection

The exhibition takes aim at the misperception of Renoir as “just” a figure painter. John House of the Courtauld Institute of Art takes the first shot in his essay, “The Public Face of Renoir as a Landscapist.” House shows how the Salon, the arena of academic and financial art success at the time, was “Renoir’s primary focus” throughout the period covered by the exhibit. Although Renoir always found figure painting most intriguing, he used landscape, the genre most valued by the Salon and the collectors, to promote himself and his art. Instead of purely selling out, however, Renoir uses landscape painting as an opportunity for growth, “view[ing] landscape as the theme that allowed him the freest scope for technical experimentation.” “If landscape was primarily a recreation for him,” House asserts, “alongside the serious business of figure painting, it was a pastime that encouraged him to produce some of his most immediate and unconventional works,” such as Springtime (in Chatou) (above), which recreates the sense of the morning mists yielding to the coming heat of the day, nearly obscuring the tiny figure moving away from the viewer in the center of the picture.

Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers' Lunch), 1875, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 25 11/16 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago. © The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo Robert Hashimoto

Simon Kelly’s essay next places Renoir within the larger context of landscape painting and the emerging new, non-Salon markets for art sales in the rapidly changing France of the late nineteenth century. Artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, and Gustave Courbet created rustic landscape scenes for the new, urban market. “New exhibiting venues—dealer galleries, auction rooms, and artistic societies—… transformed the nature of the Parisian, and French, art world in the mid-nineteenth century,” Kelly writes. Renoir placed himself squarely within this movement, admiring especially Corot and Courbet, whom he met while painting in Fontainebleau. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture(which I reviewed earlier) provides a greater window on the market forces in play at this time, especially those of the mass media, many of which were honed by Courbet, who seems much more cunning and calculating than Renoir. Renoir, however, consciously understood and worked within these conventions in creating his art, such as Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (aka, The Rowers’ Lunch) (above), which plays to the audience of the time by referencing one of the contemporary pastimes of Parisian day-trippers, free of the city limits thanks to the new technology of train transport that could whisk them off to the rural landscape and back to the city all on their single day of rest. Renoir knowingly plays to the audience yet does not pander to it, painting the backdrop landscape in his revolutionary style as if smuggling his experimentation under the guise of a “simple” genre picture.

The Grands Boulevards, 1875, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 25 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny

“Renoir in the City,” by Christopher Riopelle, co-curator of the exhibition from the National Gallery, London, examines the impact of the redesign of Paris in the 1850s by Napoleon III and Baron Georges Haussmann. In works such as The Grand Boulevards (above), we see Renoir’s conflicted reaction to the Haussmannization of Paris, in which the parks and private gardens introduced by the system that Renoir loved were offset by the new, banal architecture that came with it and that Renoir loathed. In many paintings, Renoir simply paints away the bad buildings, creating a personal utopia steeped in the Paris of his childhood yet still reaping the benefits of the urban facelift. “That such islands of privacy and peace” that were Paris’ many private gardens “were still to be found in the metropolis,” Riopelle writes, “was, for Renoir, a beguiling feature of city life.” Renoir, in turn, hopes to beguile his viewer into agreeing with his view of what Paris could be (i.e., what it once was, at lest architecturally) that Riopelle calls Renoir’s “corrective” or “subtle, utopian statement.” Where Hausmannization ruptures the social order, displacing the Parisian poor (including Renoir’s own family—twice!) in the name of progress, Renoir seeks to heal.

Monet Painting in his Garden in Argenteuil, c, 1873, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). 19 ¾ x 24 ½ inches. Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Conn.

Success allows Renoir to travel both within and without France. In Argenteuil, Renoir paints with Claude Monet, many times side by side, learning from yet always resisting total submission to Monet’s influence. Renoir’s affection and respect for Monet comes through clearly in his portrait of his friend painting in his garden behind his house (above). As Colin B. Bailey, co-curator of the exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, writes in the concluding essay, Renoir never gave up the self-identification of himself as a figure painter, but always approached landscape as a personal escape, giving it “secondary importance” that gave him license to create works that verge on the abstract. Later, Renoir travels to Algiers and Italy. “As he traveled in these years,” Bailey writes, “Renoir—however much consumed by his ambitions as a figure painter—worked primarily as a landscapist, seeking out the picturesque tourist sites already made familiar by lithographers, photographers, and other painters.” Works such as Le Jardin d’Essai, Algiser (below) stun the viewer today with their originality and uniqueness. Renoir’s contemporaries went wild as well over these exotic scenes. Unfortunately, Renoir’s dealer followed up this success with an exhibition of his more commercial Italian scenes, which subtracted from Renoir’s reputation as much as the Arab pictures added to it.

Le Jardin d'Essai, Algiser, 1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 31 ½ x 25 5/8 inches. MGM Mirage, Las Vegas, Nevada

Faced with incomprehension and often ridicule, Renoir for the most part gave up landscape after this period, concentrating on the figure. However, as the “coda” to the PMA exhibit shows, Renoir didn’t abandon landscape entirely, incorporating it into his later work and painting outdoors as late as 1915 while so racked with arthritis that the brush was strapped to the back of his hand and he had to be carried outside. One of the lectures scheduled at the PMA to accompany the exhibition is titled “Why We Love to Hate Renoir,” and I confess to an unenthusiastic response to Renoir previously, rooted in the misperception of him as simply the effete painter of “pretty pictures” and full-figured bathers. Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 presents Renoir as anything but simple—in fact, Renoir emerges as a socially engaged and engaging artist, working within the conventions and simultaneously straining against them. Renoir Landscapes reveals a new dimension in Renoir, allowing him to step out of the two-dimensional caricature we “love to hate” and stand freely as a fully dimensional artist we can come to embrace.

[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 and the images from the exhibition shown above. The exhibit runs through January 6, 2008. The PMA is the only United States venue for this show.]

[BTW, my earlier impressions of the Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 exhibition can be found here and here.]

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