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Exhibition of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's paintings marks centenary of his death
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919), The Concert, 1918–19. Oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 36 1/2 in. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1954, 53/27

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.- Over the course of his long career, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) continually turned to the human figure for artistic inspiration. The body—particularly the nude—was the defining subject of Renoir’s practice, from his days as a student copying the old masters in the Musée du Louvre to the early twentieth century, when his revolutionary style of painting inspired the masters of modernism. In recognition of the centenary of Renoir’s death, the Clark Art Institute and the Kimbell Art Museum present Renoir: The Body, The Senses. This exhibition is the first major exploration of Renoir’s unceasing interest in the human form, and it reconsiders Renoir as a constantly evolving artist whose style moved from Realism into luminous Impressionism and culminated in the modern classicism of his last decades.

Co-organized by Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Chief Curator at the Clark, and George T. M. Shackelford, Deputy Director at the Kimbell, the exhibition will be on view at the Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts from June 8–September 22. The exhibition will be presented at the Kimbell in Fort Worth, Texas from October 27, 2019–January 26, 2020.

Renoir: The Body, The Senses includes some seventy paintings, drawings, pastels, and sculptures by the artist as well as works by his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers. An international roster of exceptional loans including Boy with a Cat (1868, Musée d’Orsay), Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight (1875–76, Musée d’Orsay), Seated Bather (c. 1883–1884, Fogg Museum/Harvard Art Museums), and The Bathers (1918–19, Musée d’Orsay), as well as important contributions from the Clark’s renowned collection, survey the breadth of Renoir’s career.

“This project has been a major undertaking for the Clark and our partners at the Kimbell,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark. “Esther Bell and George Shackelford have brought their energy and expertise to researching the subject, securing extremely important loans, and creating a presentation that is intellectually and visually rich. What’s particularly interesting is the curators’ decision to focus on a topic that has been given surprisingly little serious consideration to date, particularly given the central role the nude plays in Renoir’s practice,” he noted.

“Pierre-Auguste Renoir was Sterling Clark’s favorite painter and it seemed particularly apropos to reflect on his oeuvre as we mark this centennial moment,” said Bell. “Our goal in creating this exhibition was to consider Renoir’s stylistic trajectory through a single subject—one he returned to through all major phases of his career as he balanced his respect for tradition with radical innovation. The nude has been a subject in the visual arts since time began, and it’s fascinating to look at Renoir’s work through this specific lens. The opportunity to share these masterpieces with our visitors and to reconsider an artist who is so central to the Clark’s permanent collection is particularly rewarding,” she said.

“We decided to look at Renoir both across the span of his lifetime and in the context of history,” said Shackelford. “By showing Renoir’s works alongside those of artists as diverse as Boucher, Degas, and Picasso, we’re hoping to demonstrate the ways in which his achievements grow out of the past, react to his present, and exert a profound influence on the future. We think these juxtapositions will surprise and delight exhibition visitors.”

Renoir grew up in the shadow of the Louvre and was deeply inspired by the great colorists in the grand tradition of art history—particularly Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), François Boucher (French, 1703–1770), and Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). After gaining permission to make copies of works in the Louvre’s galleries, Renoir skillfully replicated Rubens’s monumental Marie de’ Medici cycle of 1622–25 at a much smaller scale. Copy after “The Council of the Gods,” (1861, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo) helped Renoir to internalize the poses of the nude deities as perfect types. Paintings such as Boucher’s Pan and Syrinx (1759, The National Gallery, London) and Delacroix’s Andromeda (1852, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) exemplify the lush palettes and command of idealized anatomy that would have a lasting impact on Renoir’s own artistic practice. Renoir particularly admired Boucher’s Diana Leaving Her Bath (1742, Musée du Louvre, Paris) referring to it as “… the first painting that grabbed me, and I have continued to love it all my life, as one does his first love.” Renoir’s appreciation for Boucher’s Diana is evident in Little Blue Nude (c. 1878–79, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) in which the sitter’s pose directly recalls that of the Rococo goddess.

In the studio of Swiss painter Charles Gleyre (1806–1874), Renoir learned to draw from both plaster casts and live models, focusing his concentration on the body as a subject of continuing interest. The artist’s earliest paintings from the 1860s reveal a debt to this formal training, as well as to the challenges to the artistic establishment posed by Realists such as Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877). Renoir was determined to succeed within the French academic system, where the goal was to have one’s works accepted at the Paris Salon—the public exhibition to which entrance was determined by a jury. The Salon was populated with large-scale figure paintings—typically setting the nude within a historical or mythological context; such works were considered to be the most elevated within the academy’s hierarchy of genres.

Like Courbet, Renoir understood the importance of exhibiting a monumental nude at the Salon as a means of earning the type of critical acclaim that could successfully launch his career. His Bather with a Griffon Dog—Lise on the Bank of the Seine (1870, Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand), featuring his preferred model of the time, Lise Tréhot, was accepted for exhibition in 1870. Renoir’s nude bather standing alongside a lounging (and fashionably dressed) companion lounging in the background is indebted to Courbet’s controversial Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine of 1857—a painting that outraged critics by its blatant reference to prostitution. The pose of Renoir’s bather also alludes to Praxiteles’s Cnidian Venus, a Greek sculpture with which he was evidently familiar.

Renoir’s audacious Boy with a Cat was also inspired by the Greek and Roman sculptures he studied at the Louvre. The boy, embracing a large calico cat, looks directly toward the viewer, his pale body set against luxurious, embroidered drapery and velvet cushions. The pose was likely based on a celebrated Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the Louvre’s collection, a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture that features a nude figure reclining on a bed, its head resting on a pillow. Renoir’s reworking of the sleeping figure as a disarming standing boy presents a clever subversion of the traditional iconography of the female (or hermaphrodite) nude.

Renoir was a central figure in the Impressionist circle—a group of artists who sought to challenge the conservativism of the Salon and who staged their own public exhibitions. Renoir submitted works to the first three of these—in 1874, 1876, and 1877—and sent only one nude, Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight. The second Impressionist exhibition of 1876 featured this experimental painting, in which Renoir depicts a woman in a shaded, verdant landscape. The vibrant composition represents a stylistic breakthrough in Renoir’s treatment of the subject, striking a balance between tradition and modernity, between academic painting and avant-garde innovation. While some critics praised the work as “a superbly colored study of a nude” and “the work of a true colorist,” others subjected it to scorn. Albert Wolff, a noted writer of the time, venomously wrote: “Would someone kindly explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the green and purplish blotches that indicate a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse?” Such divergent critical debate would follow Renoir throughout his career.

At the height of the Impressionist movement, Renoir produced several half-dressed and nude figure paintings in which he strove to capture the interplay of light on skin. Perhaps more than any of his other contemporaries, Renoir believed the nude could be adapted to meet the Impressionists’ call for experimentation with color and light. Blonde Braiding Her Hair (1886, Dallas Museum of Art) is one of Renoir’s crowning achievements of the 1880s, a period marked by his great stylistic maturation. With her face turned completely away, the enigmatic figure draws the viewer into the abstracted landscape. This painting exemplifies Renoir’s half-dressed figures—evocatively concealed and revealed in equal measure. The painter did not attempt to capture the inner life of his model, focusing instead on the body as a vehicle for painted experimentation—evidenced, for example, in the flickering light shining on the model’s silken hair.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), and Renoir were the greatest painters of the nude figure within the Impressionist circle, though each would interpret the subject with a unique approach. Works by each of these artists are included in the exhibition.

Degas was committed to Naturalism, and his concern for the body’s pose and gesture permeate his practice. He experimented with unusual perspectives, as seen in Woman Brushing her Hair (c. 1884, The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.) and After the Bath, Three Nude Women (c. 1895, Private Collection). Like Renoir, Degas understood that through the depiction of the nude, his work would be considered alongside that of the most highly regarded artists of the past. Degas demonstrates his mastery of composition in the highly worked pastel The Bathers (1895–1900, Art Institute of Chicago), a complex and enigmatic work showing nude women in an indeterminate landscape, referencing the art of the great masters, from Titian to Poussin to Ingres.

While Cézanne’s bathing scenes were solemn and interested in geometric abstraction, Renoir’s compositions provided a more sybaritic presentation. Referencing Arcadian landscapes infused with gaiety and frolic, works like Bathers Playing with a Crab (1897, Cleveland Museum of Art), stand in contrast to Cézanne’s aggressive The Battle of Love (c. 1880, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)—a painting once owned by Renoir— underscoring their varying treatments of the time-honored subject.

By the early 1880s Renoir felt he had, in his words, “wrung Impressionism dry.” This stylistic “crisis” ––his attempt to reconcile rigorous lines and structure with the vibrancy of his Impressionist palette—resulted in a period of Classical Impressionism in which he mixed luminous brushstrokes and coloristic modeling with well-defined, studied forms. He was particularly inspired by an 1881 trip to Italy during which he admired the works of Renaissance artists.

Renoir recalled working on Blonde Bather (1881, Clark Art Institute) “in full sunlight” on a boat in the Bay of Naples. Aline Charigot, his future wife, accompanied him on his Italian journey and was the model for this painting. Blonde Bather dates to a period of transition in Renoir’s practice as he struggled to balance Impressionism with more classical models from the history of art, particularly the frescoes by Raphael that he had recently encountered at the Villa Farnesina. In place of the variegated color patches of his earlier nudes, here the figure stands out boldly from the background with her body clearly demarcated from the darker, cooler colors behind her.

Renoir’s work on The Great Bathers (Philadelphia Museum of Art), an ambitious painting executed between 1884–1887 and first exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, stands as a seeming contradiction to popular beliefs about the Impressionists’ rapid and en plein air practice. Renoir created at least twenty preparatory drawings and figure studies in various formats and media for the painting, many of which were ambitious and large in scale. Although The Great Bathers cannot travel due to conditions of its bequest, seven related compositional drawings included in the exhibition attest to the painting’s importance. Furthermore, this group of rarely seen works on paper showcase Renoir’s skill as a draftsman.

These heavily worked drawings executed in preparation for The Great Bathers reveal Renoir’s creative process. In these studies, Renoir mixed media to create differing effects of color and light. For instance, in Bathers (Study for The Great Bathers) (c. 1884–87, Morgan Library and Museum), he established the nudes’ contours with red chalk, then applied white chalk to emphasize their radiant skin. A sheet of the rightmost bather in the painting, Splashing Figure (Study for The Great Bathers) (c. 1884-87, Art Institute of Chicago), depicts a more finished stage, when Renoir carefully blended still more colored pigments to create a voluminous single form. The Great Bathers was Renoir’s attempt to rival the grand nudes of Rubens or Boucher; it was also partially inspired by François Girardon’s Bath of Nymphs (1669–71) in the gardens at Versailles—in fact, the “splashing figure” is a direct quotation of Girardon’s nymph.

Over the course of the 1890s, Renoir’s artistic style took a distinct turn towards a kind of delicate monumentality that was at once romantic in its appeal to the senses and radical in its willful deformation of convention. His bodies, growing ever larger, also became softer and more glistening—an effect he regularly achieved through his application of diluted paint. In Seated Bather (1914, Art Institute of Chicago), he used thin layers of color throughout the composition, the paint appearing almost translucent. The pigments that compose the body were blended when still liquid, and the resulting surface demonstrates a variety of texture and tone. Late in life Renoir also engaged with sculpture, creating with the help of a sculptor friend, Richard Guino, such examples as Venus Victorious (1914, Clark Art Institute), giving his figure the proportions of a Greco-Roman goddess, with narrow shoulders and swelling hips. The weight and volume that he had long sought to achieve in paint had now materialized in three dimensions.

Between 1903 and 1907 Renoir completed three large-scale paintings in horizontal format that depict the reclining nude. Two of these works, Large Nude on Cushions (1907, Musée d’Orsay) and Reclining Female Nude (1906, Musée de l’Orangerie) are included in the exhibition. The monumentality of these works demonstrates the artist’s attempt to align himself with the mythological paintings of the old masters, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, while calling to mind the more recent history of the type in the art of Ingres, Courbet, Manet, and hosts of Salon practitioners.

Completed in the final year of Renoir’s life, The Bathers (1918–19, Musée d’Orsay) is a manifesto painting—a summation of the artist’s decades-long preoccupation with the subject of the nude. In recognition of the painting’s emblematic status, Renoir’s sons presented the work as a gift to the French state following their father’s death. With oversized, rippling figures placed in a pulsating and iridescent landscape, The Bathers is exemplary of Renoir’s late work.

This period remains the most stylistically controversial of Renoir’s career. Though his molten, often abstract figures caused heated debate in his day (and still today), they were also revered and coveted by collectors and a group of avant-garde artists who looked to Renoir as the father of modernism. This group included Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) who, upon returning from Italy in April 1917, entered a “Renoirian crisis,” during which he attempted to meet the artist, purchase his work, and copy his paintings. Among the paintings Picasso eventually acquired are Renoir’s Bather Seated in a Landscape, Called Eurydice (1902–4, Musée national Picasso, Paris) and Bust of a Model (1916, Musée national Picasso, Paris), both of which are included in the exhibition.

Picasso thought of himself as an heir to Renoir’s genius, which is evident in his bold treatment of Nude Combing Her Hair (Kimbell Art Museum)—one of numerous paintings of the same subject he executed in 1906. Inspired by the curving forms of Renoir’s bathers, Picasso used flat planes of color to create an abstracted sculptural body. This painting looks forward to Cubism, but the figure’s exaggerated proportions and its placement in an indeterminate pictorial space reference Renoir, who, like Picasso, was simultaneously a revolutionary and a traditionalist.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the nude was Pierre Bonnard’s (French, 1867-1947) preferred subject. Among his contemporaries, Bonnard admired Renoir’s treatment of the nude above all others. The artists frequented one another’s homes and studios from the end of the 1890s until Renoir’s death in 1919. In Bonnard’s Reclining Nude (1927, Private Collection) the model lies on a bright chartreuse carpet, her neck disappears into her shoulders and her face is shown in profile. Her powerful form and the manner in which the sculptural body fills the picture plane calls to mind Renoir’s late paintings.

Renoir was a mentor to many of the modern artists who painted on the French Riviera in the first decades of the twentieth century, including not only Bonnard, but also Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Matisse befriended the aging Renoir over numerous visits to the artist’s home at Les Collettes, and he continued to travel there after Renoir’s death. Matisse painted the languid, rose-colored, abstracted Nude with Crossed Legs (1936, Nahmad Collection) after touring the Barnes Foundation in 1930 and 1933, where he encountered the largest collection of Renoir’s works—particularly of the late period—in North America. Matisse once exclaimed of Renoir, “his nudes…the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better—no one.”

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