More recently, the British author Max Porter captured the quality of the repugnance Renoir inspires in his 2019 novel, “Lanny”: “I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven.”
People feel the same way — only more so — about Renoir’s nudes, which he painted with steadily increasing frequency over the course of his more than 50-year career. They are the subject of “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” an exhibition at the Clark Art Institute marking the 100th anniversary of his death.
Can a great exhibition redeem a less than great artist?
I ask this knowing it is the wrong question. It is wrong not just because huge numbers of people think Renoir is, in fact, great, as well as adorable, joyous and life-affirming. But also because, for many of the rest of us, Renoir is not “less than great.” He is awful. Hideous. Beyond the pale. Asked for her take on Renoir, a discerning friend replied that his works provoked “visceral disgust.” His canvases, she said, were “like a painted version of Sweet’N Low.”
The problem with hating Renoir is simply this: Why, if he was so terrible, did Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard revere him? Why was Renoir so admired by Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne? Why did his obituary in the Guardian conclude that “probably it will be the verdict of posterity that Renoir was the greatest painter of the nude of his time.” And why did Matisse describe them as “the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better — no one.”
To suggest Matisse didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the nude is like saying Einstein had a flimsy grasp of physics. So, what gives?
Hating Renoir (if you do) is more than an aesthetic judgment. It is a neurotic affliction. I know, because I have suffered from it. It is rooted, I think, in a justifiable instinct: the feeling that a modern nude should express some convincing quotient of reality, be it psychological, social or simply physical.
Renoir’s nudes don’t really do this. The models’ persistently childlike faces look hideously generic (wide eyes, pert noses, plump cheeks). The opalescent colors, tending toward apricot and a sort of Trumpian, fake-tan orange in his final years, feel incurably kitsch. And the style consistently overwhelms the subject, so that every object — body, flower, sky, tree — appears to be made of the same fluffy substance, and all bleeds and blends into a sickening soup of undifferentiated prettiness.
But can you hear, in that paragraph, the slide from aesthetic judgment to hysteria?
The Clark show is actually wonderful and does, I think, “redeem” Renoir, if that’s what we need it to do. It is certainly the perfect place to stare into the abyss of tastelessness for which Renoir has come to stand. Visiting it is almost like therapy.
Organized by Esther Bell from the Clark and George Shackelford from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (where it opens in late October), it has things I struggle to look at; yet it boasts many paintings and large-scale drawings that are impossible not to admire, and even to love. By placing Renoir’s work among great nudes by predecessors he admired (Rubens, Boucher, Delacroix, Courbet and Corot) as well as contemporaries and successors who admired him (Cézanne, Degas, Bonnard, Léger, Picasso, Matisse and Valadon), Shackelford and Bell reveal his pivotal place within a grand French tradition.
Exhibit A in the “impossible not to admire” category would be Renoir’s “Boy With a Cat,” one of just two male nudes in the show. Painted in 1868, when the artist was 27, it shows a pale-skinned boy with dark hair and dark eyes standing with his back to the viewer and twisting his face toward us. His left leg is folded across his weight-bearing right, and he leans onto a high piece of furniture to snuggle with a cat.
Even as the painting plays up the contrast between the boy’s smooth skin and the adjacent ball of feline fluff, their sly, creaturely complicity is reinforced by the proximity of paw, hand, tail and wrist, which together form a little storm cell of interest at the heart of the picture. The coloring and composition are gorgeously fresh.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir came from truly humble origins, as Barbara Ehrlich White writes in her 2017 biography. Born in Limoges, he was the sixth child of a tailor and a seamstress and in his youth he worked as an apprentice in a porcelain factory adorning vases and window blinds with figures and flowers. He lived near the Louvre, where he fell in love with the great colorists of the European tradition: Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Boucher and Delacroix.
Realism was the radical new movement at the middle of the century, and Renoir flirted with it. (The best example in the show is the large-scale “Bather With a Griffon,” lent from São Paulo.) But Renoir, though he loved natural light, was more inclined to escape reality than to mine it. He shifted from realism to impressionism, then on to a new kind of classicism, inspired by the stable, rounded forms of the Renaissance art he saw on an 1881-1882 trip to Italy. His late works had a huge impact on Picasso and Matisse. Hoping to maximize pictorial intensity, those giants of modernism took their lead from Renoir when they began distorting and deforming the human figure, maximizing its monumentality, pushing it toward abstraction.
Like Matisse, Renoir revered the grand French tradition of “decoration,” wherein actual bodies and convincing narratives are subordinated to the free play of fantasy and delight and to the pictorial effect of formal rhythms and seductive coloring. The French 18th century had seen this tradition reach its apogee. Renoir wanted to revive it.
That is why François Boucher’s beautiful “Diana Leaving Her Bath” (1742) is such a key work in the show.
When the Louvre bought the Boucher in 1852, it immediately fired the interests of the younger generation of artists, including Manet, Morisot and Whistler. Renoir called it “the first painting that grabbed hold of me.”
“I have continued to love it my entire life,” he wrote, “as one does . . . one’s first love, although people never hesitate to tell me that this is not what one should love, that Boucher is ‘only a decorator.’ As if being a decorator is a defect!”
We think of Renoir as an impressionist and associate impressionism with naturalism: natural light, natural landscapes. But it’s hard to “get” Renoir if you don’t grasp the extent to which he left naturalism behind to focus on extending the grand French decorative tradition.
Is a whole show of female nudes what the world really needs right now? The organizers of the show have been anxious on this score, and people will decide for themselves.
Both Boucher and Renoir expressed an 18th-century view of the erotic as a humane and civilizing concept, rather than as a violent and disruptive one, which may be why women tend to love both artists in ways that men do not. But what appalls many when they see Renoir’s nudes in bulk — at the Barnes Foundation, for instance, where they ride the walls like waves of treacle — is the sense of an unrelieved onslaught of abundant, dimpled female flesh. Forced into unnatural poses, Renoir’s women feel relentlessly objectified. As the artist aged, his increasingly artificial nudes resembled the overwrought productions of an obsessive lech.
Certainly, Renoir was no feminist. Yet in painting the nude he saw himself as part of a tradition. That tradition proposes that sexual desire cannot only be aroused and intensified for short-term kicks (as in pornography) but also contained, complicated, ennobled — all of which may be preferable to denying and repressing it(as in puritanically religious traditions). The travesty is not that the tradition of the nude exists, but that it was dominated for so long by men. (Mickalene Thomas, Marlene Dumas, Deana Lawson, Lisa Yuskavage and Njideke Akunyili Crosby are among scores of female artists busy rewriting the tradition.)
Renoir’s “Blonde Braiding Her Hair,” from the Dallas Museum of Art — my vote for best in show — demonstrates why he deserves his special place in the tradition. An intimate view of the arched back of a woman with long, wet hair against a dreamy, inchoate landscape, its heavy, rounded forms and soft, mottling brushstrokes arouse the sense of touch to an almost excruciating level. The painting has none of the gauche and gritty credibility of the Degas hanging beside it. But it sets out to be something different. For all its amplified sensuality, Renoir’s subject is hallowed, inviolate.
No one is forcing you to love Renoir. I regularly recoil from him. But just as a restaurant critic can’t get away with a blanket abhorrence of, say, lentils, I’ve come to realize that it is unprofessional and finally untenable for an art critic to loathe Renoir. His paintings are there. Abundantly so. Curators are going to cook with them, just as scores of other great artists have been nourished by them.
Curly kale made a comeback. Is it too soon for a Renoir revival?
Renoir: The Body, The Senses Through Sept. 22 at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. clarkart.edu.