“Old men forget,” proclaimed Shakespeare’s Henry V. Memory fades, the focus blurs between past and present and the future offers a blank canvas unlikely ever to be filled.
For Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), the opposite was true. The final decades of the life of Renoir, one of the pioneers of Impressionism, proved to be among his most productive.
As Late Renoir, the new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reveals, the aged Renoir aimed to revive the artistic traditions and emotional sensibility of the golden age of French culture during the late 17th and 18th centuries. In works recalling 18th century paintings by Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, Renoir attempted to rearticulate European classicism in a personal expression of beauty. Coming to terms with his own mortality, Renoir evoked classical themes of art that stressed youth and sensuality, the fertility of nature and the loving embrace of family life.
From 1890 to his death in 1919, Renoir painted with indefatigable dedication. In his most famous remark, Renoir declared in 1913, “I’m starting to know how to paint. It has taken me over fifty years’ work to get this far and it’s not finished yet.”
Renoir’s pursuit of his muse is abundantly clear in the Philadelphia exhibition. Late Renoir, which earlier appeared at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, presents 92 paintings, sketches and sculptures. Continuing the tradition of the Cezanne and Beyond exhibition, which the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented in 2009, 13 paintings are on view by artists influenced by Renoir, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. There is also a selection of photos of the aged Renoir at work and a remarkable short newsreel showing a vivacious Renoir chatting with the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, followed by a poignant sequence of the artist painting with bandaged hand.
The aged Renoir embraced life with brio and tenacity, especially the latter. In 1898, Renoir began suffering crippling bouts of rheumatoid arthritis. Eventually reduced to a wheelchair, Renoir followed his doctor’s orders and settled in the south of France. In 1907, he purchased a 100-acre estate called Les Collettes in the Côte d’Azur. There he created an arcadian realm for himself, his wife Aline, whom he had married in 1890, their three sons and several nannies and maids, some of whom posed for nude portraits that would earn Renoir both renown and reproach.
Renoir’s relocation to the south of France followed in the wake of the group exhibitions of the leading Impressionist painters, the last of which took place in 1886. A year later, Renoir visited Italy, where he was impressed by the tradition of drawing and design that had figured so prominently in Italian art since the Renaissance. Leaving behind the experimentation with dappled light and other transitory elements of nature that had characterized much of his work during the Impressionist years, Renoir sought guidance and inspiration from the past. Henceforth, Renoir’s emphasis was on well-delineated drawing, fluid brush strokes and classical art themes.
A particularly revealing example of Renoir’s classically-inspired oeuvre can be seen in his oil painting from 1896-97, Woman Playing the Guitar. In a scene worthy of Watteau, Renoir presents an attractive young person totally absorbed in music. The setting is not one of Watteau’s mythical realms, however. Renoir posed his musician in a contemporary parlor remarkable for nothing except the young woman and the skillfully rendered guitar she cradles in her lap. Renoir depicts a scene of harmony and creative rapture in a place that could be the apartment next door or a house down the street, a far cry from Watteau’s mystical Island of Cythera.
Renoir invested his immediate surroundings with a touch of the poet, as well as the brush of the Old Master. This is brilliantly displayed in one of the standout paintings of the exhibition, Gabrielle and Jean. This 1895 oil from the collection of the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris shows Renoir’s infant son, Jean, who later became one of the great film directors of all time. With the child is Gabrielle Renard, a cousin of Renoir’s wife, Aline. Gabrielle Renard lived with the Renoir family for twenty years, 1894 to 1914, helping with the care of Renoir’s sons, Pierre, Jean and Claude. She also served as Renoir’s principal model, posing for almost two hundred paintings.
In Gabrielle and Jean, Renoir balances a series of counter-veiling elements with masterful effect. Gabrielle’s black hair is contrasted with the blond curls of young Jean, with a dangling raven lock falling down over her eye almost caressing the baby’s forehead. Gabrielle’s left hand touches Jean’s tiny hand as she props the little boy up. Nurse and child are modeling figures from flour paste, with Jean stretching unformed stands in his tiny figures in contrast to a toy cow that Gabrielle is holding. This is an almost uncanny act of foresight. Gabrielle, who was fascinated by films, was the person who introduced the young Jean Renoir to the cinema, taking him to see puppet shows and to his first movie.
If Gabrielle Renard was the muse for his son, her relationship with Renoir raises some unsettling issues. Les Collettes was a happy, almost idyllic, home in many respects. But it was a static realm. Jean Renoir writes in his memoirs that his father, whom he adored, insisted that the boy’s auburn hair be uncut until he had to go to school, making his son a perfect model for paintings of little girls sewing and playing. All three of Renoir’s long-suffering sons had to endure being models for their father who tenaciously tried to prolong their infancy and childhood as he clung to life amid his own severe suffering. And he kept an emotional grip on Gabrielle, as well, that was not without disturbing implications.
In two portraits of Gabrielle, Renoir paints her with a nude torso, Gabrielle with a Rose, dated around 1899, and in a painting with the same title from 1911, where her shoulders are draped. Both paintings conform to the classic tradition of the nude in European art. One could launch into psychological speculation about Renoir’s relationship with his wife, Aline, who had been his model in the 1880′s, notably for his great work, The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), and with Gabrielle. But there is no record of any strain in the domestic situation at Les Collettes caused by Renoir’s choice of his new model or manner of painting her.
What is disturbing about the portraits of Gabrielle is that they seem increasingly drained of individuality. There is little or no change in her face, little or no sign of the effects of age or inner development after 1894. The vitality and unique character traits, so evident in her portrait with Jean are lacking in the nude portraits and other later depictions of her. Indeed, the nude from 1899 is subtitled, La Sicilienne, as if Renoir was painting an archetypal woman of the Mediterranean rather than a member of his family or a person with a mind, soul and character all her own.
Renoir certainly did not let deep thoughts into the human psyche affect his work. In 1908, he shared some reflections on art and technique with the American painter, Walter Pach, which deserve to be examined at some length for the revealing insight they provide.
“I arrange my subject as I want it,” Renoir declared, “then I go ahead and paint it like a child. I want a red to be sonorous, to sound like a bell; if it doesn’t turn out that way, I put more reds or other colors till I get it. I am no cleverer than that. I have no rules and no methods: anyone can look at my materials or watch how I paint – he will see that I have no secrets. I look at a nude; there are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver.”
These sentiments are a clear expression of a working artist’s devotion to his craft. The remarks are hard to refute as long as the artist does justice to his subject. When that is not the case – and the person being depicted is denied the spark of individuality – then the work of art is lifeless and drained of meaning.
Renoir’s devotion to classical art overwhelmed his subjects. Yet, in portraits where he restrained his enthusiasm for classicism, Renoir showed that he had lost none of his mastery of technique. His portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art agent who had championed the work of the Impressionists is a tour de force. Painted in 1910, Renoir contrasts the world-weary expression and slouching pose of Durand-Ruel with his sharp, ferret-like eyes which size up people, as well as paintings, with uncanny accuracy.
Some commentators have come to the conclusion that Renoir’s patriarchal attitude toward women prevented him from treating them as flesh and blood individuals. A number of his remarks about women fall only a little short of full-blown misogyny. “When I’ve painted a woman’s buttocks so that I want to touch it,” he announced one day, “then it’s finished.”
That remark is pretty hard to accept, especially when one glimpses some of the female nudes on view in the galleries of Late Renoir. But hanging on the wall near the picture of Durand-Ruel are skillful portraits of several women prominent on the early 20th century cultural scene. These include Misia Sert, a celebrated pianist, and the poetess, Alice Valliere-Merzbach. Painted in 1913, this second work depicts a woman of intelligence and grace, with a touch of the hauteur of the French intelligentsia. Not exactly a person whose company Renoir would have sought, Alice Valliere-Merzbach is given the artistic treatment that she deserved.
Late Renoir, skillfully displayed by curator Jennifer Thompson, offers plenty of examples of works by Renoir showing that he remained at the top of his form until very late in his life. But there is a significant omission. This painting, dating to 1886, should have been included in the exhibition as an introduction for all that follows. Now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Studies of Pierre Renoir; His Mother, Aline Charigot; Nudes; and Landscape is a revelatory glimpse into Renoir’s inner life. Though far from a great work, these oil sketches depict an emotional realm populated with subjects of great appeal to a man who has labored hard for success. The faces of his first-born son and his wife, who looks like she is still in shock from child birth, are arranged in a dreamlike setting along with curvaceous nudes and the distant green hills of home. All the essential elements of the private paradise that Renoir later tried to create for himself and his family at Les Collettes are here.
Renoir’s dreamscape may appear quite tame. Paul Gauguin and Amadeo Modigliani, whose attitudes toward women were anything but liberating, created personal realms of sensuous beauty as well. But the arcadian setting in which Renoir’s nudes are posed and the almost dreamlike reverie into which they lapse creates an artificial, indeed dehumanizing, state of innocence. In a very perceptive article, “Renoir and the Natural Woman,” art historian Tamar Garb noted in 1985, “By obscuring the real relationship between people, classes and genders, Renoir gives form to a fin-de-siecle fantasy which still has currency today. Renoir’s evasion of reality produced an idealized, timeless and mythic vision of women.”
Renoir’s vision, the pleasure garden of an aging man with an aching body, was not entirely out of place with his times. Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom visited him at Les Collettes, revered the work of his late years. Even Picasso in 1919, on the verge of his own return to classical order, tried to arrange a visit, failing only because Renoir passed away before the date could be set.
Times do change, however, despite the French aphorism that things always remain the same. Beginning in the 1970’s, concern over gender issues such as those discussed in Garb’s article began to cast Renoir into disfavor. Many of his paintings, especially from his final decades, were relegated to the storage room of prominent art museums. In the case of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, some were even put up for sale. In 1989, after Renoir’s Reclining Nude (1902) was sold by MOMA, the museum’s chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, made a comment revealing the extent to which Renoir’s reputation had fallen.
”There are many people who would like the painting very much,” Varnedoe said of Renoir’s Reclining Nude, “but it simply didn’t belong to the story of modern art that we are telling.”
It is unlikely that many of the visitors to Late Renoir will agree with Matisse that Renoir’s The Bathers (1919), with its buxom female nudes, was “his masterpiece … one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.” Hopefully, this exhibition will provoke a serious reappraisal of both Renoir’s work and of ways that beauty can be depicted in art – in the real world that is, rather than in an old man’s waking dream of an earthly paradise.
Late Renoir is on display now through September 6, 2010 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.