Degas in Chicago

Degas: Beyond Impressionism The Art Institute of Chicago, September 30, 1996–January 5, 1997. Press

exhibition at the National Gallery, London, May 22–August 26, 1996;, Catalog of the exhibition by Richard Kendall
National Gallery, London/ Art Institute of Chicago/ Yale University, 324 pp., $50.00


A week after his dismaying evening with Degas in June 1907,1 Count Harry Kessler was back again for dinner in Vollard’s cellar, to meet one of those artists with whom Degas was no longer on speaking terms: Renoir. Eight years before, in 1899, the two old men had been good friends: they had both fallen in love with the same Cézanne watercolor, at Vollard’s, and had drawn lots to determine who should buy it. Degas had won. In November the same year, Renoir, feeling the pinch, had decided to sell a Degas pastel he had acquired from the Caillebotte estate. Degas had sent him a letter of such impertinence that the falling out had been for good.

On this occasion, Kessler and Renoir appear to have hit it off immediately. They shared an admiration for Maillol’s work, and so had something to talk about. Renoir had seemed at first sickly and senile, suffering badly from the rheumatism that had made his fingers look like tree roots, but as soon as he spoke he became, for Kessler, “a sort of Prince Charming,” captivatingly fresh and young, with the manner of a twenty-year-old.

The company was similar to the previous week’s: Bonnard, José Maria Sert, Mlle. Georges, and the “Creole woman,” Mme. Levell, along with the painter Maxime Dethomas (1867–1929) and another of Vollard’s colonial friends, the poet Paul-Jean Toulet (1867–1920). Vollard tried to set the tone for the evening, with a story about a man who kills his wife by kicking her in the stomach, but earned a rebuke from Renoir, who told him that his story wasn’t funny. It wanted to be funny, but it wasn’t.

The story had come from Octave Mirbeau, whom Vollard believed the greatest writer of their day. Renoir thought Mirbeau a brute, with his continual need for the excessive:

He’s like this butcher who was in Switzerland and saw two mountains. One was four thousand meters, the other three thousand. Naturally he found the one of four thousand meters more beautiful than the other. Mirbeau needs mountains of twelve thousand meters in the landscape. He doesn’t see that beauty is everywhere—on this table, in this glass, just as much as anywhere else…. You have to find beauty everywhere; that’s what the poet does. But Mirbeau, if he wants to paint an apple, it’s not enough for it to be of normal size. He has to have it like that.

Renoir’s tree-root hands described an apple half a meter wide. He recognized that Mirbeau had talent, that he was a searcher after truth, but… “It’s the same story with Courbet,” Renoir went on: “For him, Realism meant painting the head of a peasant woman. As soon as you wanted to paint something pretty, that was no longer Realism. That was called Idealism.”

At this point Sert, misunderstanding Renoir’s point, tried to defend Idealism, saying that one wasn’t always obliged to paint reality.

“Who paints Truth?” asked Renoir. “I’ve never even been able…

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