A kaleidoscopic Renoir centennial

  • The exhibit’s co-creator George Shackelford said that “Renoir responded to change and he dictated change.” Pablo Picasso revered the Frenchman and owned a half dozen of his paintings. “Seated Bather,” c. 1883–84. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. © President and Fellows of Harvard College). Contributed image

  • Renoir spent his youth copying the classics of the Louvre Museum. At age 20 he painted this rendition of Peter Paul Rubens' “The Council of the Gods” (1861. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.) Contributed image

  • In his later years, the artist became less interested in representing reality. “How difficult it is to find exactly the point where a painting must stop being and imitation of nature,” he said. “The Concert” (1918-19. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). Contributed image/COPYRIGHT ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO

  • Renoir’s contemporaries frequently paid homage to his images of the nude. Edgar Degas’s pastel is titled “After the Bath, Three Nude Women,” (c. 1895. Private collection). Contributed image

For the Recorder
Published: 7/25/2019 11:49:52 AM

Highlighting painter Pierre Renoir’s lifetime obsession in depicting the nude, “Renoir: the body, the senses,” will be featured through Sept. 22 at Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute. This major exhibit draws from 43 lenders from all points of the compass. Providing context, it includes works by the Frenchman’s contemporaries, such as Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne, and those he influenced, from Pablo Picasso to Fernand Leger.

“The Clark collection is probably one of the best collections of Renoir in the country, or worldwide,” Olivier Meslay, the institute’s director, said during a recent press reception. “I think this exhibit is the most important tribute this year to Renoir worldwide.”

Indeed. The institute’s founder Sterling Clark was an ardent admirer of the Frenchman, and its collection of 40 Renoir works is just second to Philadelphia’s Albert Barnes Foundation in American acquisitions.

A 16th century moment

Prior to descending to the galleries, where the Renoir exhibit is located, you’ll find an unusual audial experience in the Michael Conforti Pavilion. The Canadian artist Janet Cardiff (born1957) works extensively in “audio walks” and for this installation, she recorded 40 different choral voices to create “The Forty Part Motet.” The singers, recorded at England’s Salisbury Cathedral, harmoniously glide through a 16th century work by the Brit Thomas Tallis.

Forty speakers resonate with each individual voice for an 11-minute performance and a three-minute rest interval. Away from Williamstown’s traffic and 21st century noise, the work, also on permanent display at New York’s MoMA and Ottawa’s National Gallery, provides an introspective, reverential mood. It’s visually enhanced by a nearby reflecting pool and the verdant landscape beyond.

Dodging the bullet

But for serendipity, Renoir may have remained an obscure figure in art, shot dead at age 30. Paris has always had its wild and wooly interludes and, during the short-lived uprising of the 1871 Paris Commune, workers and soldiers violently rebelled against the French government. Conservative estimates note that some 15,000 Parisians were killed.

Renoir, fairly oblivious to the political turmoil, while painting a landscape by the Seine river, was almost one of them. Assuming that he was secretly outlining defensive fortifications, the national guard seized him and the artist was on his way to the Commune’s firing squad, which was running full-time.

Fortunately, an officer, Raoul Rigault recognized the artist. A few years previous, Rigault was a fugitive from Napoleon III’s police, on the run through the Fontainebleau forest. He happened upon Renoir, who disguised him with a smock and palette, and then hid him for several weeks.

The officer freed the artist and it’s believed that the story inspired a play and then became better known as the plot of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Tosca.”

‘The body, the senses’

This unique, breakthrough exhibit was organized by the institute’s chief curator Esther Bell in tandem with George Shackelford, deputy director of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum. They edited the show’s eponymous companion catalog (Yale University Press; 264 pages. $55) and contributed articles to the full-color book. Bell explained that nude paintings weren’t considered controversial to sophisticated Europeans.

“The subject of the nude was one of the most revered, the most important subject in the hierarchy of genres,” she said. “It’s a genre that was promoted by the (French) Academy.”

She further explained that the goal of the exhibit is to show the “stylistic trajectory” of the artist through a single subject. With each decade, Renoir changed his approach to painting. Although commissions for portraits reliably paid the bills, Renoir throughout his life returned to nude studies. From 1900 onward he painted more than 200 such images.

He was central to the Impressionist movement and assisted in organizing their first exhibit in 1874. For most critics, it was an unqualified disaster as they were clueless as to what to make of this new art form.

One writer derisively referred to the creators of the 165 works as “impressionists,” suggesting that the images were sketchy and unfinished. In time the artists, ranging from Paul Cezanne to Camille Pissarro, adopted the term.

Critics may have been even more inflamed by Renoir’s nudes. In 1876, a writer for “Le Figaro,” struck by the artist’s use of colors, wrote, “Please explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh.”

Shackelford took exception to this and said, “Renoir is completely about ‘how do you paint reflective and beautiful silken surfaces and ivory skin?’ ”

Pointing out a painting by Degas nearby, he joked, “Whereas if you want to talk about putrefaction.”

Degas’ painting is depressingly comprised of blues, greens and grays in shadow — not an image you’d hang over the fireplace. In contrast, when Renoir depicts a woman combing her hair, it’s a sunny image of a naked blonde effortlessly in the task. When Degas takes on the same idea, the figure seems to struggle with combing and is depicted as hauntingly dark.

In the shadow of the Louvre

Renoir was born in Limoges, France, and his parents, a tailor and a seamstress, moved to Paris when he was a tot. As a boy, he frequently visited the Louvre, a cavernous museum so enormous it’s best visited with roller skates and a compass. The Louvre was a short walk from his home and, in time, he would spend hours there copying its historical works.

When still a boy he was breathless in viewing Francois Boucher’s “Diana Leaving Her Bath.” Also exhibited, the painting is a highly detailed rendering of the seated mythological huntress with, incidentally, great proportions, gazing at her feet.

“It blew his socks off,” Bell said.

She added that Renoir once said of the image, “(I) held onto it my whole life as one does his first love.”

Renoir immersed himself in the Greek and Roman artifacts, and displaying artistic talent, at age 13, he left school and was employed painting figures at a porcelain factory.

He briefly attended the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and while studying at a Parisian studio he made friends with Claude Monet.

As a young artist, Renoir struggled and often had no stable address. He later said, were it not for the encouragement from Monet, he would have abandoned painting.

He persevered and triumphed in Impressionism, yet by his early 40s, after his first trip out of France, visiting the great works of Rome, Venice, Naples and other venues he undertook a sea change. Upon returning home he told his art dealer Ambroise Vollard, “I was reaching the conclusion that I didn’t know how either to paint or to draw. In a word … I was at a dead end.”

His style then changed dramatically, as it would again often in ensuing years.

Shackelford said of Renoir’s later period that the artist “had an awareness that his paintings were finally in the grandest of grand traditions. (For his nudes) he’s reaching a kind of summit in how the body can be truly magnificent.”

In his late 40s, Renoir was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and by his early 60s he was essentially crippled. Nevertheless, his drive to paint did not recede.

Online there’s a brief film from 1915, from director Sasha Gultry, showing the artist in a wheelchair, puffing on a cigarette and composing a scene. Although his fingers are virtually frozen and wrapped in cloth, he holds a brush between his thumb and forefinger and paints.

In later years he turned to sculpture, directing artists as to how his paintings should reach a three-dimensional form. These dramatic bronzes are also on exhibit, as well as a clock and terra cotta reliefs that he designed.

In his final months, the artist’s friends wheeled him through the Louvre to a gallery devoted to the Old Masters.

Among the venerable, historic paintings was the newly installed “Portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier,” the first of many Renoir masterpieces the museum would acquire.

Bell pointed out his very last painting “The Bathers.” Two women are prominent and the background is a feverish hallucination of abstract foliage, trees and distant figures.

“He’s gone bananas,” Bell said. “He couldn’t stop what he was doing.”

“The Forty Part Motet” continues through Sept. 15. “Renoir, the body, the senses” ends on Sept. 22. Open daily July and August, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In September, the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. General admission $20; under age 18 and students with an adult are free.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.


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