Renoir. A master chef of color and light, he created feasts for the eye
Boston — SOME exhibitions are so lovely and special that one is tempted merely to say, ``Go see it!'' It might be a show of Holbein drawings, Watteau paintings, or Calder mobiles. But whatever, its effect is always the same: A feeling that one is in the presence of a special kind of perfection that scorns any and all explanations. The Renoir exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts falls into this category. It includes so many of that artist's finest and most familiar paintings, and projects such a warmly sympathetic overview of his vision and evolution, that even an exceptionally verbose critic would have little to say beyond, ``Go and enjoy it!''
Of course, the fact that Renoir painted some of the most beautiful pictures of the 19th century, and in a style that celebrated the effervescent qualities of light and color, doesn't harm his cause one bit. Of all the Impressionists, he was the one who believed most wholeheartedly that art was made for pleasure. Blessed with a remarkable talent, he used it to create feasts for the eye. Had his medium been food rather than paint, he obviously would have been a master chef and a great gourmet. As it wa s, he produced some of the most delectable paintings the history of art has ever seen.
I was forcefully reminded of that while viewing the 97 examples of his work assembled in the museum's Graham Gund Gallery. Thirty-eight museums and 19 private collectors helped make this exhibition -- the first devoted to Renoir in the United States since 1973 -- possible, with additional assistance coming from the IBM Corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The show itself was organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain in collaboration with the R'eunion des mus'ees nationaux de F rance and the Museum of Fine Arts here.
Visitors will have the opportunity to see such Impressionist masterpieces as ``Madame Charpentier and Her Children,'' ``Skaters in the Bois Boulogne,'' ``The Pont Neuf,'' ``The Seine at Asni`eres,'' and ``The Judgment of Paris'' under one roof. And to see the series ``Dance in the City,'' ``Dance in the Country,'' and ``Dance at Bougival'' united for the first time since 1892. Furthermore, if they purchase the exhibition catalog, they will discover that it contains good to excellent color reprodu ctions, three pertinent essays on Renoir, and all the information on the paintings anyone could want.
Even more important, they will see such minor miracles as apparently meaningless clusters of varicolored pigment suddenly burst into life as fruit and flowers or a young girl's satin dress, merely by stepping back a bit from the canvas. They will witness the transformation of sunlight into countless delicate daubs and smears of brilliantly hued paint and the transmutation of human flesh into rose- or ivory-colored surfaces begging to be touched. If they take the time to look, they will notice more subt le gradations of grays, silvers, whites, pinks, and lemony yellows than in the work of almost any other painter. And if they are particularly interested in the depiction of shimmering atmospheric effects, lush and sensual nudes, beautiful children, and any and all evidences of the good life, their enjoyment of this exhibition will be complete.
Anyone primarily interested in Renoir's evolution as an artist, on the other hand, will not be disappointed either, since the show covers his entire production, from youthful canvases of the 1860s to the last pictures executed just before his death in 1919. Special efforts were made to include a number of the less popular but no less remarkable later paintings that still provoke controversy among collectors, some of whom believe them to be among his best, while others insist they are flawed by being som ewhat clumsily drawn and coloristically overheated.
It is fascinating to watch the young Renoir respectfully approach nature (almost as though with hat in hand) to transcribe it as ``accurately'' as his skills and his esteem for the attempts of the older masters would permit in ``Still Life'' (1864) and ``The Engaged Couple'' (1868); then to observe him as he enters into brisk and open dialogue with nature in ``The Promenade'' (1870) and ``High Wind'' (1872); and finally, to follow his progression as he transforms what he sees and knows into increasingly
painterly creations that ultimately become almost as autographic as his signature.
While it may be possible to dislike such late images as his 1913-14 ``Judgment of Paris'' or ``The Bathers'' of 1918-19, it is difficult not to stand somewhat in awe of them. Not only are they the profoundly personal statements of an old man who had thoroughly assimilated and transformed into paint and color everything that was important to him, they are also closely tied to the great classical traditions of the past. Just as C'ezanne felt the need toward the end of his life to challenge the old masters
at their own game by tackling the problem of how to paint a group of nudes in a landscape, so Renoir wanted to round off his life with one final attempt to reconcile his personal style with the formal and thematic ideals first realized by Titian and Rubens.
It is still too early to know if ``The Bathers'' truly succeeded. I would like to think that Renoir and the two older painters are off somewhere happily discussing art. But if they are, I suspect it's due more to their admiration for what Renoir painted before 1900 than after. He was most successful, I believe, when he and nature were in frank and respectful dialogue, with both contributing equally to the final enchanting effect. Too many of his final works strike me as ``hothouse'' creations or as rat her self-conscious attempts to force his way into art history. He needn't have worried. When the full story of 19th-century art is finally told, the name of Pierre Auguste Renoir will rank almost as high as any.
Because of the great interest in Renoir, special ticketing procedures are in effect. Tickets for a reserved time and date are on sale at all Ticketron and Teletron outlets, as at the museum's West Wing lobby. The exhibition will remain on view through Jan. 5.