Renoir's Palette of Beauty and Sunshine
The first North American exhibition devoted to the painter's portraiture invites viewers to contemplate his place in the Impressionist circle
Reflecting on his life's work, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir remarked, "They don't take people seriously who smile."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Indeed, critics' remarks about him in the 19th century continue in the 20th. Because he claimed that paintings should be accessible and likable, Renoir is said to lack intellectual seriousness.
Despite longtime friendships with painters Claude Monet and Paul Czanne, two of the 19th century's most influential painters, Renoir did not systematically carry on daring experiments with painted light or color. Nor did he formulate a theory of art. Renoir's work focused on human beings, presenting them in pleasing colors that represented their deep satisfaction with life. He painted a world of dappled sunlight and long afternoons, purposely omitting unhappy workers and exhausted peasants.
The first North American exhibit ever devoted to Renoir's portraiture asks, in effect, whether liking Renoir is no more difficult than liking sunshine. "Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age" is currently at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The exhibit of more than 60 paintings, selected from public and private collections, offers viewers an opportunity to study works seldom seen together and to contemplate the painter's sense of beauty. Does Renoir's insistence on decorative values and visual pleasure seem a reasonable philosophical position in the late 20th century?
To be fond of Renoir, as the sellout crowds in Ottawa have been for several months, means coming to terms with his view of women, whom he frequently painted. Renoir's women, and the children whom they so uncomfortably resemble, are as flawless as the fragile porcelain he decorated in his youth.
The contradictions of Renoir's career can be glimpsed in a 1878 portrait of "Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children." Financial difficulties in the late 1870s persuaded Renoir to concentrate on flattering portraits of wealthy Parisians. Marguerite and Georges Charpentier, whose home was a popular salon for literary, political, and artistic discussion, were supporters of Renoir. They commissioned an elaborate rendition of Madame Charpentier, with six-year-old Georgette, her three-year-old brother, Paul (dressed as a girl as was customary for young upper-middle-class children), and their Newfoundland dog, Porthos.
The freshness and informality of the painting belie the fact that the work involved the family in 40 sittings. Except for patient Porthos, the portrait teeters between likeness and idealization. The room and even the couch are poised to dissolve into a fantasy of luxury. Many Parisian critics, who bemoaned what they saw as Renoir's lack of draftsmanship, found this more organized group portrait successful both in terms of composition and color. As he had calculated, favorable reviews quickly rejuvenated his career and income.
However passively domestic Charpentier appears in this work, she was an active participant in the cultural affairs of the day. Yet like so many of Renoir's women, she has become a symbol of domestic isolation and unworldliness. The idealization of women in Renoir's portraits, which sometimes threatens to obscure their identity, expressed a widespread 19th-century desire for a world in which urban industrialism with all its problems could be shut out. Renoir did not create this longing, nor did he invent the symbolic association of women and home, but his works are suffused with these values.
As a consequence, his much-beloved portraits of children often show them as extraordinarily tranquil and self-possessed. A series of paintings on the theme of dancing couples, begun in the 1880s, gives pastel praise to what was, in actuality, a rather raucous late-19th-century recreation. It is intriguing to stare into the demure face of the young female model in "Dance at Bougival" (1883), looking for hints that she will become the well-known painter Suzanne Valadon, mother of another painter, Maurice Utrillo.