Mick Jagger made the scene. So did the Grateful Dead. John DeLorean, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and most of the Boston Bruins showed up, and the princess of Sweden got tickets somehow. They and nearly a half-million other folks were not about to miss what has become the can-you-get-me-in? cultural event of the year, and we are not talking Bruce Springsteen.
It is a retrospective of paintings by Impressionist master Pierre Auguste Renoir at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Some facts: This exhibit of a hundred-odd works appeared earlier this year in London and Paris and opened Oct. 9 in Boston, its only American stop. It will close Jan. 5, but not before about 453,000 have viewed it, at a rate of approximately 700 per hour. That is twice what the blockbuster Marc Chagall retrospective drew at the Philadelphia Museum of Art earlier this year.
Which is enough to make anyone wonder if it is worth it. The critics have had their say, and the expected carping has surfaced: about Renoir the sentimentalist who painted a world of sun and sensual delights and never got much deeper; about the overwhelming number of arguably ordinary Renoirs and the arguably few great ones on display, given that several major works (such as the flirtation-filled "Luncheon of the Boating Party") have not been permitted to travel with the display beyond London or Paris. But there is no debating the result: Renoir has conquered Boston beyond expectation.
In this era of art megashows, it seems the Impressionists' -- and, particularly, Renoir's -- claim upon the mass fancy has been exploited in a triumph of mass marketing.
The museum's advertising budget for this show, corporately sponsored by IBM, stands at $100,000 -- about twice what it usually spends on major exhibitions. The message is that Renoir's is the fine art that everyone can love, everyone can understand -- truly a people's art. At least for the people who can get in to see it.
"It's too crowded," protested Ruth Grant of Framingham, Mass. "It's like the flower shows in Boston used to be. We finally stopped going to them."
On one recent rainy morning, when the museum had been open only an hour, the first 700 patrons already had turned the modest maze of galleries into a civilized mob scene. By threading through the congestion to spots of relative clear, one could actually get close enough to many of the paintings.
But visitors were never far from the crush, the click and whir of people fussing with their audio tours, trying to keep up with the narration, clucking in frustration. It inevitably distracted from the serene contemplation these pictures inspire.
There are those life-size paintings of dancers (in the country, in the city and at Bougival -- the first time these three masterworks have been exhibited together), in which Renoir has made vivid and lush everything from the rakish tilt of a yellow hat to the squashed cigarette butts on the dance floor. And there are two from the Wadsworth Atheneum collection: a portrait of Claude Monet painting in his garden and one of Madame Renoir with a lap dog, apparently misidentified in the title as "Bob." Only an elitist snoot would argue that these pictures are simply not enjoyable in such a herd atmosphere.
"Our major concern and mandate was to make Renoir as accessible as possible to as many people as we could," said Linda Patch, public relations director for the Museum of Fine Arts, which sets aside Mondays as "members only" day. Thus, anyone who purchases a museum membership can still see the show. Patch noted this is the first time the museum has offered an event on an advance-ticket basis.
How does she respond to the suggestion that Renoir just may have been overmarketed into an event bigger than the art itself?
"In the past, we've had as many as 16,000 people jam our galleries on a weekend day for a major art event," Patch said. "Through preticketing Renoir, we've been able to limit that number to 4,900 on a weekend day, which really helps us alleviate the mad dash."
What an exhibition of this scale and splash will do for Renoir's reputation and the value of his art is anybody's guess. What it has done for Boston is more to the point.
"What this means to Boston?" asked Lana Razdan, public relations manager of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Why, a new emphasis on the importance of the arts community to tourism . . . This has been a large drawing card for a wide range of people -- it appealed not only to the Renoir enthusiasts but to those who wanted to experience him for the first time."