Truly childlike

ONE of the reasons Renoir was so good at painting children was that he never resorted to being cute or coy. Charming and sympathetic, yes, and even at times a bit sweet. But then, that was in his nature, as even his depictions of flowers, fruit, and landscapes testify. It has been said that his manner of painting was like a caress, that if ever an artist painted for the pure pleasure of touching brush to canvas and translating what he saw into the most ``delectable'' piece of painting possible, it was he. Of this there can be little doubt. And it paid off, for his ability to become totally absorbed in the pleasurable potentials of color and paint was the source of his greatest strength and one of the main reasons he is so popular today.

There was something about the very young that especially appealed to Renoir and that lent itself most effectively to his painterly vision and approach. Perhaps it was their air of innocence, or maybe it was the clear color of their skin, the fanciful clothes they wore, or the enjoyment many of them obviously felt in dressing up for the occasion. But whatever it was, we can be certain it had to do with the pleasure he experienced in their presence, and in the delight he took in transforming that pleasure into the most sumptuous and irresistible combination of color, paint, texture, and line that talent and creative passion permitted.

In this he was without peers among the Impressionists. None could match him in painterly charm, in the pure likeableness of his images. Whatever else he may have lacked - and he was far from being the greatest painter of his period - he had the extraordinary knack of creating visual magic, of fashioning surfaces that ravished the eye.

This ability was already apparent in his ``Portrait of Mademoiselle Romaine Lacaux,'' painted in 1864 when his young sitter was 9 and he himself was 23. It became more pronounced and eloquent in his 1878 ``Portrait of Madame Charpentier and her Children'' and reached its fullest expression in his ravishing ``The Cahen d'Anvers Girls'' of 1881.

After that, according to one's tastes, he either went a bit too far and created pictures just a little too sensuous and ``overripe,'' or he moved on to make some of the most significant canvases produced by the Impres-sionists.

Regardless of one's feelings about his later work, no one can seriously question that Renoir painted some of the loveliest, most charming pictures of the late 19th century. Nor that among the finest of these are a number of his studies and portraits of children.

Several, executed in preparation for more finished and detailed compositions, consist of various oil or watercolor sketches juxtaposed on a single canvas or piece of paper. Since these were dashed off and were made primarily for his own reference, he saw little point in showing them to the public. There was one exception, however. ``Studies of the B'erard Children,'' which he painted in 1881, must have struck him as sufficiently complete and interesting for general viewing, for he included it in an 1883 exhibition.

It's not surprising that he did, for this roughly 24-by-32-inch canvas very much holds its own among his more painstakingly rendered paintings and has the added advantage of revealing something of his working habits. For all its swiftness of execution, it comes across as a remarkably accomplished pictorial statement. Only a master painter could have done so much with so little, could have produced such fully realized individual images with such a limited number of strokes and smears of colored paint.

Each of the eight separate studies of the four children of diplomat and banker Paul B'erard and his wife depicted in it was painted with all the directness and spontaneity of a pastel sketch. And yet every one succeeds both as a beautiful piece of painting and as a portrait.

Most remarkable is the nearly frontal head of baby Lucie - which is about as convincing an image of a sleeping infant as anyone has produced. And for sheer exquisiteness of paint handling, nothing could be finer than the hair of seven-year-old Marthe at bottom center. Everything about this picture, in fact, is sensitively rendered and endearing, from the informality of the children's poses to the delicacy with which every detail is subtly suggested or carefully delineated.

If all but a dozen of Renoir's paintings were to disappear, I would want this to be one of those that remained. Not because it's a masterpiece as we understand the term, but because it shows Renoir at his best, and because it is one of the most engaging and truthful representations of childhood in the entire history of painting.

The four very young B'erards, sketched as they sat or slept, actually are children, not stiff little puppets dressed up to resemble miniature adults. Nor do they resemble the simpering, saccharine images of a totally fanciful childhood with which we are bombarded today. These youngsters obviously actually existed - and continue to exist through the art of a man so enchanted by the world as he saw and painted it that he couldn't help but transmit some of that enchantment (and the truth that lay behind it) to us.

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