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…

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