Late Renoir: A Master Ages, and Shuns Reality

The early works of the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) are almost universally admired. So what to make of his later works? Martha Teichner examines an art world controversy:

The art critic for The New York Times said "The Bathers" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir looks like "two croissants on a plate of greens." Not a compliment!

But according to curator Joe Rishel, Matisse called Renoir's work, completed in 1919, "among the greatest works of art ever painted."

The painting is the centerpiece of an exhibition of his late works, currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Los Angeles Times review said "Late Renoir is bad Renoir." Take that!

"It's at least a given that it's simply, simply not hip to like these pictures," said Rishel, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum.

"I love late Renoir, and I always have," he said. "I find myself really getting my dukes up and saying we're trying to revisit this."

Who knew that Renoir could get people so riled up?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir is still admired for paintings that are icons of Impressionism . . . busy with brushstrokes, dappled with light, alive with color, such as his 1876 "Ball at the Moulin de la Gallette."

But in the 1880s, he changed.

"He finally has the means to travel, and so he goes to Italy and he goes to Algeria, and these are just amazing opportunities for him to see different parts of the world," said Jennifer Thompson. "And particularly in Italy. to be confronted by the works of the great Renaissance artists."

Fleshy nudes by Titian . . . Raphael . . . Rubens . . . Velasquez, among others

You can see where this is going . . .

"He actually decides that he doesn't know how to paint, and he doesn't know how to draw - that he has to completely rethink his style," said Thompson, who co-curated the "Late Renoir" show.

She showed Teichner one of a series of reclining nudes Renoir began in 1903 . . . showing his
obsession with painting flesh.

"Renoir often spoke about how he loved models whose skin took the light," Thompson said. "And you get a great sense of a sort of glowing flesh.".

He was quoted as saying, "When I've painted a woman's bottom so that I want to touch it, then the painting is finished."

These are precisely the paintings critics today love to hate.

And are these paintings about sensuality? Certainly, says Rishel, but he adds the seeming sunniness of Renoir's work could be taken by critics as superficiality.

"It's the Doris Day phenomenon; you can't have any talent if you're doing that sort of thing," he said.

(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
But while he was alive - and for decades after his death - Renoir's late work was prized.

(Left: "Bathers Playing with a Crab," c.1897.)

Martha Lucy is associate curator of the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, which has 181 Renoir works in its collection.

"It's the biggest collection in the world," Lucy said.

Of the Barnes' 181 Renoirs, Lucy said, "About 85 percent are from after 1890, and 50 percent are from the very last decade of Renoir's life."

Dr. Albert Barnes invented Argyrol, an antiseptic used in the eyes of newborn babies. With the money he made, Barnes assembled one of the finest collections anywhere of Impressionist and early modern art.

In a letter to another collector in 1913, Barnes wrote, "I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs."

So what happened?

Lucy said that in 1910-1919, the last decade of Renoir's life, he was considered by many critics to be the greatest living painter. "And I think that what happens is around 1950, there was this shift in taste. I think modern art starts to be understood as something that has to be difficult, challenging."

Something Renoir's paintings were not.

He painted the snug world around him, again and again using his wife's cousin, Gabrielle, as his model. He dressed his children in elaborate costumes.

He seemed to be a man in denial.

Rishel showed early film of Renoir towards the end of his life, when the war was on: "You can see he's a rather feeble fellow now, with his hands doubled over with this horrible, horrible arthritic condition he had, but he's having the time of his life."

But what effort it took him to paint, as seen in extraordinary film taken of Renoir, part of the Philadelphia exhibition. It was shot in 1915, in the middle of World War I. Two of Renoir's sons had been wounded in battle; his wife had just died.

Matisse asked his friend, "Why torture yourself?" Renoir's reply: "The pain passes, but beauty endures."

By that last difficult decade of his life, Renoir had moved from Paris to the south of France, hoping for relief. Confined to a wheelchair, he lived to paint.

Instead of reality, he painted sunny fantasies, one after another, always experimenting with how he applied his paints.

At around the same time, Matisse and Picasso were producing edgier artwork. But they owned paintings by Renoir, and learned from them.

Lucy showed Teichner Renoirs' "Woman and Child" (left): "The colors are kind of applied in blocks almost, which you see Matisse doing later on."

Matisse and Picasso thought Renoir's paintings were beautiful.

But are they? Or are today's critics right?

"One of the things that you see over and over again is comparisons of his paintings to cream puffs, and to, like, frosting," said Thompson. "It's like, 'too many calories in a Renoir.'"

He did more than 4,000 pictures in his lifetime. There were 700 in his studio on the day he died, at the age of 78, on Dec. 3, 1919.

That morning he said, "I think I'm beginning to know something about painting."

You decide . . .

For more info:
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Barnes Foundation