The Art of Pleasure

Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Pierre-August Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–1881

Opinion remains unsettled about Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who died nearly a hundred years ago, in 1919. There are museumgoers who recoil from what they regard as the saccharine sweetness of his portraits and nudes, which earned him a place among the most universally beloved artists of the twentieth century. Some suspect that this essential figure in the Impressionist avant-garde was at heart a conservative who turned his back on his fellow experimentalists as soon as he could. The monumental female figures that Renoir painted in his later years, although fervently admired by leaders of the modern movement including Bonnard, Matisse, and Picasso, are often dismissed as absurdly hyperbolic evocations of an antiquated femininity. The enormous arms, breasts, hips, and thighs that stirred Renoir’s imagination are seen as an affront to modern standards of beauty and health. Renoir is forever caught between the rival claims and allegiances of the avant-garde and the rearguard.

A new biography of Renoir and an exhibition devoted to one of his most important paintings are the latest attempts to navigate this perilous terrain. The challenges that he poses to interpretation are conquered by neither the biography, by the art historian Barbara Ehrlich White, nor by the exhibition and accompanying catalog that the Phillips Collection has devoted to Luncheon of the Boating Party, one of the treasures in that remarkable museum. Nobody seems to know how to present a satisfactory defense of Renoir’s silken brushwork, which is so often dismissed as glib and superficial.

The truth is that Renoir’s painterly gifts serve a vision that is not so much lighthearted as it is implacably hedonistic. In our time, when so many associate seriousness with the agonized imagery of Edvard Munch, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon, there is a danger that the heartfelt sweetness of Renoir’s work is confused with middlebrow sentimentality. Renoir sought sublime sentiments in the faces of beautiful young women and could not always avoid kitsch; he sometimes aimed for honey and produced only corn syrup. But in his very greatest paintings—from Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–1881) to the portrait of the brilliant Austrian actress Tilla Durieux (1914), posing in her glittering costume for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion—he takes his place with Titian, Rubens, Watteau, Matisse, and Bonnard among the immortal poets of pleasure.

No work of Renoir’s brings us closer to the paradoxical nature of his genius than the nearly six-foot-wide canvas Luncheon of the Boating Party. His subject is a gathering of more than a dozen of his friends on the terrace restaurant of the Maison Fournaise, an establishment on the island of Chatou some nine miles northwest of Paris. Here the intoxicating color and calligraphic brushwork of the Impressionists provokes a dazzling sensory overload, even as Renoir’s appetite for narrative and characterization brings to mind the vast…

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