An aging man’s vigor: Renoir’s sensual freedom in paint
The late collector Walter P. Chrysler Jr. acquired his first work of art in 1923, just after he turned 14. Chrysler used the $350 he received as a birthday gift to purchase a small watercolor of a nude by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who had died four years earlier. Unfortunately for posterity, the precocious teenager kept his Renoir in his dorm room at the elite Hotchkiss School. His dorm master, believing the work to be salacious, confiscated and destroyed the piece.
But what was smutty “poison” at Hotchkiss in 1923 was a feast to the Philadelphia collector and educator Albert C. Barnes, a sensualist of the old school.
“In drawing of the very highest order,” Barnes wrote in The Art of Painting (1925), “line is not a sharp demarcation between adjacent areas of color, but is color itself, either as an actual narrow colored band, as often as in Cézanne and Matisse, or as an area into which the color overflows from the objects on either side.” To Barnes, this latter form of drawing “attained in Renoir its supreme degree of perfection.”
Until it closes on September 6, the Art Museum’s “Late Renoir” exhibition affords the unprecedented opportunity to see, in a concentrated way, just what so moved Dr. Barnes. Philadelphia has always been the best place in the world to appreciate Renoir: the foundation established by Dr. Barnes has 181 Renoirs on permanent display; and the Art Museum’s permanent collection is rich with examples of Renoir’s art, several of which are part of “Late Renoir.”
Surrounded by women
At the Art Museum, you escape the din of the corridor into Renoir’s serene, meditative world. Conversations are rare— most everyone is tethered to earphones. If you do take the audio-tour, leave time for unguided looking, the very act engaged in by Renoir’s models. His women are all around you: reading books and sheet music, admiring babies, attending to their stitching, and watching their hands tie their shoes or coif their hair.
There is more than Renoir in “Late Renoir.” The curators have included paintings by the modern masters who were influenced by Renoir’s subjects, by his open brushwork, and by the unique synthesis of color and line he achieved with glowing hues and loose contours.
Picasso and Matisse, for example, had the highest regard for Renoir’s late figure paintings, in which both of these young painters found a treasury of ideas. Picasso’s monumental figures of the early 1920s were inspired by Renoir’s late work. For Matisse during his Nice period (1917-1933), Renoir’s nudes constituted a textbook on sensual freedom in paint.
Luscious basking bodies
The female nude in a landscape was an important theme of Renoir’s late career. Renoir reveled in painting womanly flesh—large, luscious bodies basking in sunlight-suffused Mediterranean landscapes. At the Art Museum you can see for example, Bathers Playing with a Crab (c.1897), on loan from The Cleveland Museum of Art, and The Bathers (1918-19), which normally lives at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Absent from this exhibition is the Barnes Foundation’s Group of Bathers, painted by Renoir at age 77, the year before he died. The older Renoir became, it seems, the more voluptuous and freely painted were his women. Yet for all the looseness in paint handling, these late paintings reflect a persistent interest in composition and solidity. Renoir used line and contour to create a sense of volume, evoking solid, weighty figures that look almost sculptural.
Girl or woman?
This marmoreal quality is also evident in other late Renoirs at the Barnes Foundation— for example, two monumental paintings of recumbent models, Reclining Nude (La Source) of 1897, and Reclining Nude from 1910. In both, images of women and water symbolize the source from which all life springs. Renoir’s attenuated figural style in the earlier work was inspired by the French 16th-Century Mannerist sculptor Jean Goujon.
Tipping his hat to his starting place with sculpture, Renoir enveloped Reclining Nude (La Source) with a playfully illusionistic frame, as if setting the figure into an architectural niche. The white cloth spills out of the picture to drape over the ledge, and the artist painted his name in block letters in the lower right corner to imitate an inscription chiseled in stone. The 1910 version retained the nude’s blissful pose and the pastoral setting near a spring. But the model is now more woman than girl, the colors more ruddy than delicate, and the paint handling more fluid than dry.
Lessons of the Louvre
Renoir began his career in the decorative arts, as a painter of porcelain and fans. “It is in the museum that one learns to paint,” Renoir often said. The lessons he gleaned at the Louvre as a young man influenced his subsequent subject matter, technique and composition.
Toward the end of his life he recalled that the painting that had first impressed him in the Louvre was Francois Boucher’s Diana Bathing. In that rococo confection, two nude beauties— Diana and her attendant— refresh themselves by a stream bank. Such idealized, mythic scenes of women and nature were in the back of his mind when he painted several of the works included in “Late Renoir.”
Both Renoir and Cézanne developed their aesthetics in part by studying the history of art displayed in museums, although each took away different lessons. Significantly, the traditional subject of nudes in a landscape interested the two great masters for much of their careers. At the turn of the 20th Century, both men were engaged in painting monumental examples of this theme.
Contrast with Cézanne
After you leave the special exhibition galleries at the Art Museum, you can find Cézanne’s huge Nudes in a Landscape elsewhere in the museum. Where Cézanne created the impression of an unsettling, theatrical space with human forms ambiguously located within it, Renoir described more legible, familiar settings for his figures.
Renoir was no less a precursor of modernism than Cézanne, but at the same time he was steeped in tradition, evidently looking to Rubens and Boucher as he addressed the joyous sensuality of female flesh. My favorite late Renoir, Bather and Maid (1900), is not at the Art Museum but at the Barnes Foundation. The subject of this painting provided Renoir with a context to show two women in a slightly erotic yet decorous and familiar activity. Within just a few years, this sensual theme of women grooming women would attract both Matisse and the young Picasso.
Renoir’s bather in this painting is fair, nude and passive, her servant dark, dressed and active. Water figures prominently; he has placed the couple on the banks of a stream. Like an ancient Venus, the buxom redhead casually holds up a looping handful of her hair. Virginal white fabric and her coccyx-length tresses frame her nude body. Her attendant’s long apron merges with the sheet that she bunches into a rosette between her breasts.
Confined by clothes
Renoir outfitted the maid with a vibrant red blouse, assigning the same hue to the hat’s floral ornament at the very front of the composition. The slope of the hairdresser’s arm and the direction of her gaze lead our own to the left to pause where the ivory comb rests. On the opposite side of the composition, a figural tree at the edge of the stream stretches up its branches and arches its trunk like a Yogi performing a sun salutation.
The erotic tumble of garments on the ground—a corset’s eyes and lacings are clearly visible—imply that this nature girl will soon rejoin the ranks of those fettered by clothes, her voluptuous curves back under wraps.
“Nobody ever painted more spontaneously, freely, with more improvisation than [Renoir],” Dr. Barnes wrote in 1925. “The sensuous charm and the general decorative quality of Renoir’s work are achieved by luminous color-chords of a wealth never before paralleled.”
Dr. Barnes could not own too many Renoirs: “Each new acquisition,” he remarked in the preface to The Art of Renoir (1935), “bear[s] within itself recognizable marks of a continuous growth in the painter’s experience and of his progressively increasing ability to record new and richer experience in his pictures.”
Barnes may have regarded late Renoirs the way Robert Browning felt about his beloved: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”