Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Second Impressions

I will readily confess that Pierre Auguste Renoir was far from my favorite Impressionist until recently. Born February 25, 1841, the Renoir in my head was the Renoir of the rounded female nudes and the quaint scenes of nineteenth century French life, such as his The Artist’s Family (above, from 1896). I’ve seen The Artist’s Family at the Barnes Foundation, just one of the 180 paintings in their collection. When Dr. Barnes began to assemble his collection, anything signed Renoir was an automatic buy, regardless of the relative quality of the work. A walk through the Barnes’ galleries will leave anyone with Renoir fatigue and a distorted picture of the artist himself. Fortunately, the PMA’s 2007 exhibition Renoir Landscapes helped dispel my misconceptions and taught me how to learn to love Renoir.

I’ve often walked through the PMA’s Impressionist section and mentally compared Renoir’s The Large Bathers (above, from 1887) with Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, painted nearly twenty years later. Renoir always seemed to suffer in that comparison. Cezanne always seemed much more interesting and Renoir much too safe, even when you knew that his future wife Aline (the pudgy matron of The Artist’s Family just nine years later) posed for the bather on the right. The softness of Renoir’s brushstrokes spoke of weakness to me. I could forgive Renoir’s close friend Claude Monet for a similar approach, but Renoir’s apparently self-constrained choice of subject matter just left me cold.

It took images of warmer, exotic climates to warm me up to Renoir finally, such as his Algerian Landscape, “The Ravine of the Wild Woman” (above, from 1881), just one of the revelations of the Renoir Landscapes exhibition. (My review of that catalogue is here.) Seeing Renoir’s approach to landscape and even seascapes (especially his two mesmerizingly abstract paintings titled The Wave), I found a new respect for him. The closed world I imagined Renoir inhabiting soon exploded to include Algeria and Italy. Suddenly, thanks to Algerian Landscape and other paintings, I could see traces of Delacroix in Renoir. Looking at the final gallery of works done when arthritis plagued Renoir so much that he needed to have the brushes strapped to his hands, I recognized a soul consumed by painting. In those final years, seeking the warmth of the south of France, the aging Renoir welcomed the young Henri Matisse as a pilgrim and fellow artist. I always wondered why Matisse felt drawn to Renoir. Now I think I finally know why.

[BTW—The PMA’s presentation of Renoir Landscapes included one of my all-time favorite lecture titles: “Why We Love to Hate Renoir.” I had tickets but had to miss it, but would love to know what they said someday.]

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