Renoir the Radical

Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age 27-September 14, 1997; the Art Institute of Chicago, October 17, 1997-January 4, 1998; and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, February 8-April 26, 1998.

exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, June, Catalog of the exhibition by Colin B. Bailey, with the assistance of John B. Collins, and with essays by Linda Nochlin and Anne Distel
National Gallery of Canada/Yale University Press, 384 pp., $29.95 (paper)


There are no thorns among Renoir’s roses and, for many, that is the problem. His figures have none of Degas’s troubling psychology, none of Manet’s puzzling abbreviations of traditional three-dimensional modeling, none of Cézanne’s crumpled geometry, none of Monet’s emotive brushwork, and hardly any of Pissarro’s appeal to rural nostalgia. His apparent placidity and feeling for floral beauty don’t fit well with the tensions of the late twentieth century. Many of his critics want some evidence of the anxieties that we associate with his fellow Impressionists.

Will the current exhibition of his portraits in Chicago boost his reputation? I should like to think so, but I doubt it. In 1985 the larger and more representative retrospective did nothing to change the current, generally unenthusiastic view of Renoir.1 On the contrary, it was often greeted in the art press by attacks on what was said to be his lack of intellect, his mere prettiness, and the egregious sexism so evident in his voluptuous nudes. This is a far cry from the first half of this century, particularly the 1920s, when he was usually classed with Cézanne as a master who rose above his era to provide links with the great art of the past. André Lhôte spoke for other Cubists when he wrote, somewhat obscurely, that Renoir was superior to Monet, whose Waterlilies were “the suicide of genius” because they dissolved solid form, whereas, in Renoir’s work, “the Impressionists’ visual space is abolished and painters’ intellectual space is reconquered.”2

An opposite view prevails today, when Monet is placed well above Renoir by critics and art historians. Despite this adverse view of professionals, Renoir’s Portraits was a huge success this summer in Ottawa’s National Gallery of Art, whose chief curator, Colin B. Bailey, directed the exhibition. It drew over 3600 viewers a day, its hours were extended, and it finally had 340,000 visitors, surpassing the 253,000 who came to see the retrospective of Degas’s work in 1988. 3 This seems evidence of Renoir’s popularity. (The big Renoir show of 1985 was also very well attended, in all three of its venues.)

Once inside the entrance rotunda of Moshe Safdie’s decade-old museum, the visitor to the portrait show encountered a particularly ambitious version of the sales campaign that we have by now become used to in museums. The book and souvenir shop displayed in its windows some of the many Renoir products on sale, including racks of Provençal wines, red and white, with specially commissioned labels signed “Renoir.”4 The visitor had to exit through a shopping space with posters, colored reproductions, handbags, ceramic tiles, mugs, calendars, T-shirts, picture puzzles, postcards, and note cards—each of these in several sizes—as well as umbrellas, aprons, refrigerator magnets, shopping bags, dolls, toy dogs, and a toddler’s bonnet. All these were based on Renoir’s painting, as was a child’s “Renoir activity pack.”

It soon became clear from the exhibition itself that Renoir’s commissioned portraits were largely limited to the late Seventies and early Eighties, when he needed money and courted success of a conventional kind. Once he had a reasonable income, he painted portraits only of his own family, his friends, theater people, and a few dealers and patrons. His work of the Sixties, when he was in his early twenties, shows the influence of colorists like Delacroix and Velázquez and to some extent Courbet. By the middle Seventies Renoir created his own distinctive chromatic tapestries, in which objects are distinguished less by variants in light and dark than by juxtapositions of different, brilliant hues. His Camille Monet Reading of 1873, one of the glories of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, is a worthy rival of the greatest colorists. The multicolored panels of Mme. Monet’s wide dress are outlined in broad bands of lavender-blue which contrast with the tans, reds, dark greens, and off-whites of the sofa and foot-cushion—furnishings inspired by Japanese designs. This is not japonisme as understood by Manet, with his abrupt and flat patterns, or by Degas, with his dramatic cut-off spaces, but an effulgence of colored texture that floats forward to the surface, the quintessential Impressionist effect.

In the mid-Eighties, after a trip to Italy, Renoir shifted toward a style that delineated objects and spaces more clearly: they no longer emerged from fluttering brushwork. In Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont of 1884 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin) the three daughters of his close friend Paul Berard are crisply separated from their surroundings. The highly colored Caucasian carpet on the table and the chintz draperies behind it are also painted flat, so that the entire composition has a nearly folkloric or “primitive” feeling, comparable to Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte, exhibited in 1886 (and available in the Art Institute for Renoir’s visitors to see). Like Seurat’s, Renoir’s large painting (50 x 68 inches) has a toylike aspect, including the visual pun of a doll held by a doll-like child.

Renoir’s later portraits, like Tilla Durieux of 1914 (Metropolitan Museum), supplant the tightly drawn works of the mid-Eighties with monumentally rounded forms less brilliantly colored than the works of the Impressionist period. Their lustrous and sonorous colors have a powerful sensuality, closer to Titian and Rubens, and are partly responsible for the Cubists’ claim that Renoir had gone beyond Impressionism, which they deemed ephemeral, to a timeless classicism.

In keeping with their wish for a broader view of Renoir, the curators in Chicago have added their own Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (1879-1880) and the famous Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) from the Phillips Collection.5 With these multi-figured pictures, the Chicago exhibition shows Renoir’s most ingratiating side—young Parisians enjoying life in Parisian suburbs. Of course this raises the question of what portraiture consists of, but the question was already implicit in the Ottawa show. Several pictures there would not readily be considered portraits, including The Inn of Mère Antony (1866, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (1879, Art Institute of Chicago), Two Sisters, also called On the Terrace (1881, Art Institute of Chicago), and Dance at Bougival (1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). True, we know the identity of the sitters, but they were asked to pose for genre pictures, that is, scenes from contemporary life, not for portraits as such.

The inclusion of such pictures probably responds to the unacknowledged worry that the show would be too narrow if it were limited to portraits as they are normally defined. If several genre paintings had been added, the exhibition could have been entitled Renoir’s Figure Paintings, but then it would have had to include some of the artist’s countless nudes, and it would have too closely resembled the retrospective of 1985. As it is, twenty-three of the catalog’s sixty-nine canvases were in that earlier show, and Colin Bailey needed to give distinction to his exhibition.

Bailey’s contributions to the catalog identify correctly for the first time several of the sitters, and greatly extend our knowledge of others. In a few cases he and his researchers correct errors based upon common surnames. Mademoiselle Legrand (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art; illustration on page 10) was not the daughter of the art dealer Alphonse Legrand but of the shop clerk D.-B. Legrand and his wife Marie-Joséphine Coquillard, a maker of straw hats. Madame Thurneyssen and her Daughter (1910, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) are not related to the French Colonel Albert Thurneyssen, but are wife and child of the Bavarian Friedrich Thurneyssen. The portraits of Marie Octavie and Captain Edouard Bernier (1871, Metropolitan Museum and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) will no longer be incorrectly identified as those of Captain P.-A. Darras and his wife.

These are not mere details, but suggest connections that allow us to see Renoir’s works differently. The portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, a painting truly worthy of Velázquez, was not, we now know, a society portrait, but shows instead the daughter of artisans, that is, a member of Renoir’s own class, and any payment made for it would have been very small. Mme. Thurneyssen was not French, but the wife of a well-to-do Bavarian professor. While staying with the two of them in Bavaria, Renoir admired the paintings by Rubens in Munich that are echoed in the portrait of his host’s wife and child. As for the portraits of the Berniers (Captain Bernier was Renoir’s superior during his service in the Franco-Prussian war), we now realize that, compared to the well-to-do Darras couple with whom they were confused, the subjects are relatively modest people.

It must be said, however, that these helpful revelations are concealed behind dense hedges of scholarly detail. For each of the newly identified pictures, as for all the others, the reader faces a daunting series of footnotes placed at the end of the catalog so as not to lengthen the entries. We must digest an average of twenty or more detailed notes for each painting (sixty-six for catalog no. 44) and take into account 228 collateral photographs. This research often seems carried out for its own sake. The facts mostly remain external to the paintings, leaving it up to the reader, largely unaided, to understand how the composition of the painting and its subject are related. Perhaps this atomization of Renoir’s works in the catalog inspired the Art Institute to add pictures that would give a more continuous sense of Renoir’s career.

The pleasure Bailey obviously takes in setting out in detail the life stories of Renoir’s subjects—we learn of Mlle. Legrand’s two marriages, her children, her jobs, etc.—reveals him as a traditionalist who believes that facts count. The reader will find no signs of the current preoccupation with “theory” (and, blessedly, none of its jargon), and little in the way of psychological or social interpretation. Bailey assumes that the more we know about Renoir’s sitters the more we will understand his pictures; but he often fails even to try to relate this information to any perception of Renoir’s brushwork, color, and composition. In most entries, it is true, the attentive reader will find evocative and gracefully written descriptive passages, such as this one embedded in Bailey’s account of Tilla Durieux.

Durieux’s dress now emphasizes the qualities of expansiveness and amplitude that are at the very heart of Renoir’s representation, a transformation mirrored in his treatment of the sitter herself. Making only one adjustment to her appearance—he asked her to pin a pink rose in her hair—Renoir nonetheless recreated Tilla Durieux as a mulatto goddess, softening her earthiness and flamboyance and endowing her with a serenity that could hardly be considered part of her persona, public or private.

As for the rest of the catalog, Linda Nochlin’s contribution, “Impressionist Portraits and the Construction of Modern Identity,” was apparently intended to situate Renoir in his generation; but it so thoroughly concentrates on Degas that it perpetuates the current subordination among art historians of Renoir’s work to Degas’s. Anne Distel’s essay, “Léon Clapisson: Patron and Collector,” provides a detailed and fresh account of one of Renoir’s patrons, but like Bailey’s footnotes, it is mainly of interest to the specialist, not the general reader or exhibition visitor.


These essays are a reminder that a contemporary exhibition catalog is not quite a book. It is a curious phenomenon, a literary centaur that at first was tied to a particular exhibition and subsequently came to be treated as an autonomous publication. Before the 1950s, most exhibitions provided visitors with a pamphlet that included a prefatory essay, a simple list of the works on display, and an illustration or two. In a few cases, a “memorial catalog” would follow the exhibition, containing illustrations and essays or commentaries on some of the paintings by writers who had seen the show.

Several circumstances led to a gradual increase in the size and scope of catalogs of major exhibitions after World War II: rapidly expanding art history courses in colleges and universities, increased public attendance at art events, lower costs of color reproduction, and the wish of museums to take advantage of the greatly expanded market for art books. The Ottawa catalog is typical. Lavish color illustrations make it into a splendid- looking commodity; major works not available for the exhibition are discussed in an introduction to round out the subject; scholars are invited to contribute essays; entries for each exhibited work become mini-essays that would be out of place in a book.

Amid all its plenitude, the Ottawa catalog does not deal adequately with the broader issues raised by the very paintings it describes. It does not consider the possibility, for example, that Renoir may have had a popular touch because he was the only major Impressionist from the artisan class. The son of a tailor and a seamstress, he worked in a porcelain factory between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. New mechanical methods of applying patterns to ceramics lost him his job and gave him a lifelong hatred of industrial production. He earned enough from painting shop signs and the like to permit him to study intermittently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1862 to 1864, but this training in the fine arts did not make him forget his modest origins.

In contrast to the ambitious Monet, Renoir did not aspire to be a member of the upper middle class. Until the turn of the century he lived in working-class districts in Paris, a landless artisan like many of his neighbors. He only acquired property reluctantly at age fifty-four, when he bought a house in Essoyes, his wife’s native village, and he was sixty-six when he bought another, at Cagnes, on the Mediterranean coast. It is true that he lived well from the late Eighties onward, but he maintained a very simply furnished household with unfinished wood furniture, and avoided everything that smacked of upper-class refinement.

By then Renoir was fairly prosperous, so his insistence on an unadorned way of life might seem hypocritical. Yet his cultivation of his artisanal origins suited his belief that although material riches are appropriate for the wealthy, and would be everyone’s lot in an ideal society, in the materialistic world of nineteenth-century Paris they were incompatible with the life of a craftsman. At times he seems like the street boy who presses his nose against the windows of the rich while being proud of his own independence of such people. Yet he was aware that he was, in his painting, creating an idealized world, far removed from the present, and therefore utterly unlike the sometimes harsh account of modern life to be found in the work of Manet and Degas. He hated Manet’s chic and fascination with elegance, and to the upper-class fashion model that Manet painted he preferred a Montmartre seamstress who could use a few pennies’ worth of ribbon to transform her cheap dress into something worth painting. In such pictures one can see a genuine celebration of popular taste, so different from the elegance of Manet, which appeals more to art historians.

His writings (known to specialists but largely ignored) are full of praise for craftsmen as distinct from elite artists, and they disclose a lifelong Ruskinian passion for the arts and crafts. He expressed despair over the absence of creative architecture and decoration in his own time, which he felt was debased by eclectic repetition of vaguely Renaissance design, and he lamented the decline of handcrafts in face of machine production, the degradation of the worker, and the soulless rationalism of modern industry.

We must insist that it is the totality of the work left by numerous forgotten or unknown artists which makes a country’s greatness, and not the original work of a man of genius.

Machinism, the division of labor, have transformed the worker into a simple automaton and have killed the joy of working. In the factory, the worker, tied to a machine which asks nothing of his brain, sadly accomplishes a monotonous task of which he feels only the fatigue.6

That Renoir was a serious thinker, and a passionate one, is largely unknown and is hardly touched on in the current exhibition. Among his friends and acquaintances were prominent art critics like Gustave Geffroy and Téodor de Wyzéwa, and well-known intellectuals and political writers. For several years from 1876 onward he regularly turned up at the prestigious soirées of Marguerite Charpentier (subject of two portraits in the current exhibition). There he met with liberal republicans like Emile Zola, J.K. Huysmans, Théodore de Banville, Jules Ferry, Léon Gambetta, and Eugène Spuller (editor of Gambetta’s La République française). We cannot know what he absorbed from these writers and politicians—he was hostile to socialism and labor unions—but he maintained professional relations with some of them, including Banville and Spuller, whose portraits he painted. In the early Nineties Renoir sometimes attended the monthly dinners of the Impressionist circle at the Café Riche, described by Gustave Geffroy as a center of heated discussions of art, literature, and politics, where, we are told, Renoir delighted in making provocative remarks, although we don’t know just what he said. 7

Renoir’s skeptical interest in ideas may seem incompatible with his idealized images of lovely children and handsome adults. Indeed the jacket copy of the catalog for Renoir’s Portraits stresses the artist’s “uniquely endearing and enduring images of pleasure, comfort, and prosperity.” And the catalog text points out that the artist was bent upon creating an ideal world in his art, not a record of contemporary life. This is not sufficiently explored, however; visitors to the exhibition will doubtless leave it with little awareness that Renoir consistently opposed nearly all aspects of modern life.

Of course in their different ways, Monet, Cézanne, and Pissarro also resisted modernization and largely avoided Paris in their mature work. Monet was an ardent republican and Pissarro a committed anarchist, whereas Renoir was a Ruskinian composite of radical and reactionary. He feared change and longed for an earlier time when, he believed, the Church and the State took care of the poor, and when there was a firm social structure in which craftsmen had secure places, if modest ones.

His own life became severely restricted. Increasingly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis from the late Nineties onward, by about 1910 he could hardly walk and had to be carried. In a separate “Study Room” in Ottawa he was seen in a clip from Sasha Guitry’s film of 1915, Ceux de chez nous. Renoir is seated in his wheelchair, talking volubly to Guitry while periodically bending forward to paint. He holds his brush rigidly in hands whose gnarled fingers did not function independently. A wraithlike figure, he frequently jerks forward to make quick dabs with his brush, then he suddenly thrusts his shoulders back, gives quick flicks of his head, nervously smoking a cigarette. All this nervous energy was described years earlier, but it now appears in the deformations of his terrifying arthritis, which was later suggested by Picasso in a famous drawing done in 1919, the year of Renoir’s death, and which was based on an earlier photograph.

At the time of the interview with Guitry, Monet was at work on the Waterlilies which have made his estate at Giverny a major tourist site—not at all the scene of artistic suicide that the critic André Lhôte predicted it would be. Those pictures, too, like Renoir’s, depend upon the construction of a utopian world, a limited one of flowers, trees, and ponds. This watery paradise can be seen as a retreat from the pressures of ordinary life although ironically, in order to paint it, Monet had to pass beneath a railway that bisected his estate. (There is never a hint of the railway in his pictures, which is just as well.) In this regard Renoir is more like Monet than is usually acknowledged. He also painted a dream- world, a retreat from modern machinery and status-seeking competition to another sphere in which the handmade, with all its irregularities, would be the highest offering of the craft of the painter.

  1. 1

    Curated principally by Anne Distel and John House for the Hayward Gallery, London; the Grand Palais, Paris; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, January 1985-January 1986.

  2. 2

    Renoir et l’Impressionnisme,” 1920, cited in Nicholas Wadley, editor, Renoir, A Retrospective (Hugh Lauter Levin, 1987), p. 286.

  3. 3

    Ottawa Citizen, August 23, 1997. In Chicago the fee will be a daunting $14 on weekends, $10 weekdays, but huge crowds are nonetheless anticipated.

  4. 4

    A cartoon in the Ottawa Citizen (August 23, 1997) took account of the widespread application of Renoir’s “signature” by applying it to a beer bottle, sneakers, and a reversible drill.

  5. 5

    The subject itself of a recent exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ (September 1996- February 1997). For this exhibition, see James Fenton in these pages (The New York Review, September 25, 1997).

  6. 6

    From Renoir’s preface (my translation) to Victor Mottez’s French edition of Cennino Cennini’s medieval treatise Libro dell’arte (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Occident, 1911). In 1877 Renoir had published two brief arts and crafts polemics in the guise of letters to the editor of the short-lived review L’Impressionniste, and in 1884 he wrote out a manifesto for a “Society of Irregularistes,” another ardent appeal for the decorative crafts. His manifesto fell on deaf ears; it was published posthumously in Lionello Venturi, editor, Les Archives de l’impressionnisme (Paris: Durand-Ruel, 2 volumes, 1939).

  7. 7

    Geffroy in Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre (Paris: G. Crès, 1922), p. 155.