Who doesn’t have a problem with Pierre-Auguste Renoir? A tremendously engaging show that centers on the painter’s prodigious output of female nudes, “Renoir: The Body, the Senses,” at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sparks a sense of crisis. The reputation of the once exalted, still unshakably canonical, Impressionist has fallen on difficult days. Never mind the affront to latter-day educated tastes of a painting style so sugary that it imperils your mind’s incisors; there’s a more burning issue. The art historian Martha Lucy, writing in the show’s gorgeous catalogue, notes that, “in contemporary discourse,” the name Renoir has “come to stand for ‘sexist male artist.’ ” Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women—who in his paintings were always creamy or biscuit white, often with strawberry accents, and ideally blond—that, Lucy goes on to argue, the tactility of the later nudes, with brushstrokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male. I’ll endorse that, for what it’s worth.
“The Bather,” by Gustave Courbet, circa 1866.
Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Renoir’s women strum no erotic nerves in me. There’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs, smushed into depthless landscapes and interiors, and thus no imaginable approach to intimacy. Their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb—bearing out Renoir’s indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives. They aren’t subjects, only occasions. (His models were often amazed at how little they recognized themselves in pictures that they had posed for.) Peculiarly, Renoir did grant the women wonderfully articulated hands, the body part hardest to render convincingly—good for doing things, perhaps around the house. In his later work, his most prominent models were his servants or other lower-middle-class women.
“Seated Bather,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from 1914.
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago / ARS
He’s great, though, according to the standard of art history that values the refreshment of traditions by way of radical departures from them. The brilliant curators of the Clark show, Esther Bell and George T. M. Shackelford, demonstrate Renoir’s pivotal place in French painting of the nude by interpolating apposite works by such predecessors as Boucher, Corot, and, especially, Courbet, whose nudes are like libidinous four-alarm fires; by Renoir’s contemporaries, the sardonic Degas and the conscientious Cézanne; and by members of the next generation, notably Picasso, Matisse, Valadon, and Bonnard. (The show is a romp for connoisseurship, illumining, by abrupt contrasts, the core qualities of the respective artists.) Picasso adored and collected Renoir nudes, the more outrageous the better. I think that he responded to something about Renoir that he also found in the consummate religiosity of El Greco and in the hieratic integrity of African sculpture: downright, forthright art, uncompromised by social niceties and free of apologetic irony—a bit akin to what Kierkegaard wanted from God, the capacity “to will one thing.”
“The Bathers,” by Pablo Picasso, from 1920-21.
© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARS
Everything in Renoir that is hard to take and almost impossible to think about, because it makes no concessions to intelligence, affirms his stature as a revolutionary artist. He stood firmly against the past in art and issued a stark challenge to its future. You can’t dethrone him without throwing overboard the fundamental logic of modernism as a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence. The more politicized precincts of the present art world are bent on just such a purge, and it’s hard to contest their point by sticking up for Renoir’s only too confident, even embarrassing, panache. But there’s no gainsaying his historic significance.
Class is key to understanding Renoir. He was born in Limoges in 1841, the sixth of seven children of a tailor and a seamstress. The family moved to Paris four years later. He left school at the age of twelve or thirteen to apprentice as a decorator of porcelain, quickly advancing to a mastery of rococo forms and images; that training persists in all his painting, in which he centers the subjects in space that goes vague toward the corners of the canvas. Meanwhile, he haunted the Louvre. Committed to fine art, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1862. His schoolmates included Monet, Sisley, and Bazille. He produced strong works from the start, under the spell of Courbet’s audacious realism and Manet’s celebration of urbane modernity. (His earliest nude in the show, “Boy with Cat,” from 1868, isn’t only rare for him, with its male subject, but startlingly homoerotic.) This was the era when artists started to forsake aristocratic and institutional patronage—bucking the bias of the annual Salon while hungering for inclusion in it—in favor of support from a burgeoning middle class.
In contrast to his better-off peers, who chafed against their starchy upbringing, Renoir was bourgeois by aspiration, not by birth. Unconflicted, he swooned for the fashions and the pastimes of the new order in such touchstone masterpieces as “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette” (1876), which is outside the purview of the Clark show; the swirling crowd of chic merrymakers in dappled summer light has enticed innumerable youths, including me, long ago, into a passion for modern painting. (There’s an anticipation here of Andy Warhol, who jumped from lower-class depths to upper-class heights, eliding the middle altogether.) That social infatuation, plus the artisan roots of a style that bore traces, to the last, of ceramic embellishment, made Renoir an unprecedented artistic type, no more but also no less vulgar than the society that gave him a life and paid him a living. He was a parvenu’s parvenu.
It feels wrong to term Renoir a misogynist, though he was certainly patriarchal. “Misogyny” implies active animus. By all accounts that I’m aware of, including that of his adoring son Jean, the great film director, he got on pleasantly enough with the woman he married, in 1890—Aline Victorine Charigot, a dressmaker, almost twenty years younger, with whom he had already had one child and would have two more—and with models, a mistress, and an illegitimate daughter, born in 1870, whom he secretly supported for the rest of his life and, with a bequest, beyond it. He could be collegial with female artists, notably Berthe Morisot, but he gave no sign of regarding women as other than a species subservient to men. He deemed women who performed professionally “completely ridiculous”; in a letter to a critic, he explained, “In ancient times, women sang and danced for free for the pleasures of being charming and gracious. Today, it’s all for money which takes away the charm.” The airy assumption in that may be worse than misogyny, which at least credits women with power as antagonists. It marks no mere flaw in Renoir’s personality but an essence of it that dovetails with his attitude toward painting. Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.
At the show, part of me felt as though I were writhing on a pin: again and again the carnal tapioca, the vacant gazes, the fatuous frolic. Arriving at a cool Corot nude in a darkling landscape or a crisp Picasso nude combing her hair was like gulping fresh air in a miasma. The prehensile touch with which Renoir molds female masses with color—instead of modelling them with tonal shading—awes the eye, defeating a self-protective impulse to perceive the figures as if they were cels from animated cartoons. The work tends toward silliness but never topples into it. He can really move paint around, and his colors attain complex harmonies even as you may crave sunglasses to mitigate their screeching chromas. He’s like a house guest so annoying that you might consider burning down the house to be rid of him. Let’s not do that. ♦