Renoir, late in his long life, liked to tell this story: Once, in 1881, while visiting Algiers, he glimpsed a princeling in the distance in robes of gold and purple, glowing in the sun. Only on approaching did he see he was mistaken: The princeling was a beggar, those royal robes were rags.
Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), despite his early poverty, the many wars he lived through, and the illnesses that crippled him, was just about incapable of recognizing suffering. Zola wrote of squalor, Manet painted anxiety, and these men were his colleagues -- but Renoir would have none of it. "There are no poor in painting," was one of his convictions. "When Pissarro painted views of Paris, he always put in a funeral," Renoir once complained. "I would have put in a wedding."
It is almost always summer in Renoir's sunny art. ("Why paint snow?" he asked. "It is one of nature's illnesses.") His round and rosy nudes know nothing of unpleasantness. His well-dressed, wide-eyed children never misbehave. His pictures drench the viewer in voluptuary sweetness. Paintings, he insisted, should be "likable, joyous and pretty -- yes pretty. There are enough ugly things in life for us not to add to them."
A large and long-awaited Renoir retrospective opens Wednesday at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The show is filled with daylight, and not only that which floods in from the skylights overhead. Renoir's paintings glow. His lovers shine with joy, his children's faces gleam, and nothing here is still. His paintings quiver with moving, colored light. It rises like sweet perfume from the peaches and the grapes and the flowers in his still lifes, it pours through his blue skies, and, reflected by warm waters, dances on the opalescent skin of his plump, contented bathers. But 97 Renoirs are a little hard to swallow. His frothy, scented paintings, though frequently delicious, leave the viewer hungering for something more substantial, for some complexity, some edge.
Other recent retrospectives devoted to the art of great Parisian masters -- Manet at the Met, Picasso and later Ce'zanne at the Museum of Modern Art -- confronted us with paintings of impregnable solidity. Renoir in such company seems something of an airhead. His only aim is pleasure. An insistence on the sugary -- more irritating now than a century ago -- debilitates his art.
The catalogue is splendid, the installation fine. But the show is not a triumph, at least not for Renoir. Among his hollow pictures one hears the steady hiss of a deflating reputation. Even those who love him -- and his fans are legion -- will admire him less leaving this exhibit than they did when they walked in.
The fault is not the curators'. The three who chose these paintings -- Anne Distel of the Muse'e d'Orsay, Paris, John House of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, and John Walsh Jr., who used to work in Boston but now serves as director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. -- have avoided the deepest pitfall confronting those who pick a Renoir exhibition. They've excluded his worst art.
Renoir painted ceaselessly, sometimes almost mindlessly, and everyone agrees he made lots of lousy pictures. Compared to Degas, for example, Renoir all his life was a strangely uneven painter. It sometimes seemed he could not tell his good art from his bad. He "endlessly made rapid sketches even when he had nothing to say," notes John House in the catalogue. "Few, if any, of these were destroyed, to which we owe the mass of authentic but trivial canvases which have so damaged his reputation."
That damage increased greatly when hundreds of his studio scraps were poured onto the market following his death. "When studies which Renoir had left with his wife's family were found to have been made into rabbit hutches or used to keep the weather out, his relatives explained that they did not think that anything that came so easily could be of value," writes Sir Lawrence Gowing who adds, with understatement, "it is not certain they were wrong."
But despite his fluff and failures, Renoir is the best beloved of all the French Impressionists. Post cards of his pictures -- of "A Girl with a Watering Can" (1976) and "Girl with a Hoop" (1885) -- are two of the best sellers at the National Gallery of Art. His "Luncheon of the Boating Party" of 1880-81 (which did not go to Boston) is the Phillips Collection's biggest draw. While the present exhibition was on view at the Hayward Gallery in London earlier this year, it had 364,430 visitors, half again as many viewers as any other show there ever had attracted. An additional 824,688 people saw the show in Paris at the Grand Palais last summer (only King Tut has done better there). Admission to the Boston show will be limited, intentionally, to 453,000; 350 viewers will be admitted to the show every 30 minutes. Timed tickets are already selling briskly at $5 a head.
Maybe Renoir is so popular because he does not make one think. He always denied being intelligent, and no intelligence is needed to slip into his art. His pictures call to mind the daydreams dreamed in baths. His scrubbed and happy children are the sort mothers meet only in their reveries. His plump and giving nudes -- with their soft, inflated bodies and characterless faces -- recall the gauzy harems of adolescents' dreams.
Feminists, with reason, find his art offensive. He loved to paint from models, and though we know their names (Rapha, Lise, Gabrielle), and though he married one of them (Aline Charigot), scholars have a hard time telling which is which. At least five women, it is thought, posed for the "Luncheon of the Boating Party" -- Aline Charigot, Jeanne Samary, Ellen Andre'e, a model named Ange le, and a fifth woman whose name is lost -- but all five look alike. None of them are skinny.They all have pale skin and pouting, bee-stung lips. Our confusion is no accident. Renoir painting women was not seeking likenesses, but evoking dreams.
"I cannot do without a model, but one has to know how to forget the model," Renoir once remarked, "otherwise the work will smell of armpits."
Renoir's women do not think. The painter, when he portrayed them, did his very best to empty their minds. "I took an aversion to one of my paintings," Renoir once remarked, "when someone baptized it 'La Pense'e' (The Thinker)." As early as 1874, the critic Prouvaire, while noting their "pearly white cheeks and the light of some banal passion in their eyes," accurately described Renoir's women as "attractive, worthless, delicious and stupid."
He may be the most popular of all the French Impressionists. He is also the least modern. The pictures he left us, and there are more than 6,000, suggest little of the future. Instead, they take us back to 18th-century France, to the fe tes galantes of Watteau, and to the plump-nymphs-in-the-woods of Boucher and Fragonard.
Renoir's reputation for advancing modern art is based less on his pictures, or so it seems to me, than it is on his friendships. He knew Manet, Pissarro and Degas. He shared a studio with Monet, and painted with Ce'zanne. In 1874, a number of his pictures were among those shown in the first Impressionist exhibit. But despite his form-dissolving colors and the light touch of his brush, Renoir, the Impressionist, was not long a progressive. Unlike, say, Matisse, another Frenchman given to color and the sensuous, Renoir felt no need to experiment. He found his subject early. Late in his long life, Renoir told Vollard, the dealer, that the first old painting that had caught his youthful fancy was Boucher's "Diana Bathing." And bathers were the subjects of his last works.
"Perhaps I've been painting the same three or four paintings throughout my life," he told his son, the film director Jean Renoir.
Jean Renoir ("Grand Illusion," "The Rules of the Game") was as fine an artist as his painter father. At least he was more comfortable with the grand conception. And he did not have the painter's awesome self-indulgence.
Renoir very rarely attempted monumental, demanding, complicated pictures. Unfortunately, two of his most daring -- "The Boating Party" and the "Ball at the Moulin de la Galette" -- are absent from the Boston show. And the grandest works displayed -- the three dancing couples, "Dance at Bougival," "Dance in the City" and "Dance in the Country," all of 1882-83; the "Children's Afternoon at Wargemont" (1884); and the Metropolitan's "Madame Charpentier and Her Children" (1878) among them -- cannot match the grandeur of those absent works.
Here and there throughout the show there are passages of pure painting whose beauty takes the breath away. "It's with my brush that I make love," Renoir said, and the viewer does not doubt it. But watching him make love does not satisfy for long.
"Renoir had an almost physical aversion to doing anything he did not wish," wrote Jean Renoir. "He was like a human sponge, absorbing everything that had to do with life. All that he saw, everything that he was aware of, became part of himself. The thought that his every brushstroke gave back these riches a hundredfold did not occur to him until late in his career . . . The role . . . which implies a 'giving' of oneself, seemed unrealistic to him, who only wanted to take. Of his own unbearable selfishness, he had no conception."
For a while we forgive him. His paintings, after all, allow us to enjoy the pleasures he imagined. But soon we start to tire of sybaritic hedonism. Renoir had a master's touch, but not a master's soul.
IBM helped pay for the Renoir exhibition, and for its superb catalogue. Additional support came from the National Endowment for the Arts. Tickets are available through Ticketron and Teletron. The show will close Jan. 5