Searching for clues to our fascination with Renoir

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By the time it closes on Jan. 5, the Renoir exhibition will have set a new attendance record here at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). With tickets completely sold out for the rest of its run (except to members), museum officials are predicting a total of half a million visitors. Why the crush? What attracts us to the century-old paintings of a French Impressionist? And what does that attraction tell us about ourselves?

Last week, seeking answers, I went back through the exhibition. Shuffling along in front of shin-high guardrails, I had plenty of time to notice the rest of the 700-an-hour crowd. There were T-shirted students with flyaway hair, staring silently in rapt admiration. There were well-dressed matrons chatting happily about whether the still-life pears were overripe. There were professorial couples mumbling about palette and line. There were airline stewardesses and bow-tied bankers and silver-haired grandfa thers, listening through earphones to the self-guided tour tapes.

What drew them there? One can start, of course, with the externals:

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The economy, just now, is roaring ahead. For many, taking an afternoon off from work, buying a couple of (relatively inexpensive) tickets, and maybe going out to dinner afterward all seem easier.

The season may also help, bringing Christmastime travelers (sometimes with their out-for-the-holidays schoolchildren) to the city on the wings of low air fares and package-deal hotel rates.

The exhibition has been heavily promoted, and the MFA staff has helped make visiting easy -- providing, for example, a double-decker London bus to shuttle visitors from far-flung parking lots.

But there's more to it than that. These crowds have not exactly been cross sections of America. In the best sense, they've represented an elite -- not of wealth or lineage, but of education. Boston, after all, is peppered with colleges and universities and is said to have the highest per capita level of college degrees of any American city. And in America, high culture -- center- ing on the great monuments of dance, music, and art -- is linked with college educations. It is hardly touched upon in our high schools. Fitting, then, that an enthusiasm for culture should gravitate to Boston.

That explains, then, why any major art exhibition should have a shot at success here. But why Renoir in particular? A painter of nothing grand and elevating, he drew his scenes largely from leisured summer Sundays and bourgeois elegance. Yet he managed to construct, out of such subjects, paintings of high aesthetic purpose.

Which means, in fact, that Renoir is a rare thing. He is both ``in'' among the mavens of high art and, at the same time, easy to understand and pleasant to behold. In a society that too often brandishes culture as a sign of status, that sometimes reduces him to the cocktail-party chatter of social climbers. But it also means that he can captivate those who thought they had no interest in art.

Yet as I shuffled through the museum's West Wing, I sensed that there must be something more to his appeal. After all, there are a number of painters who are both aesthetically profound and pleasantly accessible. Why, in 1985, have we turned to Renoir?

I don't pretend to have the answer. But when I came to his ``Young girls at the piano'' (catalog No. 89), something clicked. A quiet, even sentimental piece, it was one of a series that led to an almost identical painting purchased in 1892 by the Mus'ee du Luxembourg in Paris. It has none of the well-worked detail of the later piece. It's simply an oil sketch. It's a quick attempt to establish colors and forms, a kind of first draft. Yet in the girls' poses, in the deft treatme nt of hair and hands and cheeks, and in the loosely defined piano and mere splashes of color in the background, the painting breathes out a vitality, an immediacy, that make it superior in many ways to the more finished works -- bringing us closest, perhaps, to Renoir's real genius.

It has, in other words, the appeal of spontaneity. And that may be the clue to our fascination with Renoir. We long for spontaneous excellence. In our high-tech and high-intellect age, we have so studied ourselves, so quantified and charted our comings and goings, so worked over the details of our schedules and futures, that the sudden moments of brightness seem few and far between. Awash with plans, we thirst for improvisation. Locked into routine, we reach out for the sudden dazzling gesture. In a pen ury of imagination, we yearn for the elegance of spontaneity -- for contact with those who have so mastered their art that in quick, sure strokes they can touch the heart.

No wonder we applaud Renoir. A Monday column

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