One look at "A Passion for Renoir," the eye-catching exhibition at the Clark Art Institute here, leaves no doubt who is the star. The French Impressionist master is represented by 33 compelling works, mainly early ones. Yet behind these canvases lies a less visible costar: the late Sterling Clark, founder of the institute. It's his "passion" that's referred to in the title, and his lifelong fascination with Renoir led to his collecting the art on display (through Jan. 5, 1997). So this show is equally about Clark's interest in Renoir and especially certain genres: women, children, still lifes, and landscapes.
"There is no progression of paintings," says Steven Kern, the Clark's curator of paintings and exhibition director for the Renoir show. "It's organized in order to evoke the private collection. Clark wasn't interested in a chronology. He was interested in early paintings that he liked, that touched him: strong composition, beautiful brushwork, color harmony."
The show marks the 40th anniversary of the Clark and is also the inauguration of its 12,000-square-foot addition, designed by Ann Beha Associates of Boston. Most of the paintings - from about 1880 to 1882 - are somewhat less known to the general public than Renoir's later works. They tend to employ fewer of the reds and oranges that became so familiar in his canvases. Clark, who died in 1956, was a bit of a renegade in this respect.
In his appeal for Americans, Renoir is a kind of Puccini of painters - lush, immediate, sentimental perhaps, beautiful in a direct way that is not true of some other Impressionists like Monet or Pissarro. They took a more depersonalized approach to some of the same kinds of subjects - people and landscapes, for instance.
"You don't look at a lot of Czanne and say, 'Oh the joy and happiness in that painting,' " laughs Mr. Kern. "But that's what locks Renoir's place in the popular culture of America."
And the canvases do capture the feel, almost the smell, of the world around them. Is that a light from the museum's ceiling hitting the girl's cheek, you find yourself wondering at first sight of the 1882 painting "Marie-Therese Durand-Ruel Sewing." You'd almost think so as she bends over her sewing. But it's just the brilliance of Renoir's effect as he shows light striking her face and splashing onto her brown hair and red hat. "Sunset at Sea," an 1879 oil on canvas, washes your eye and mind in dreamlike vistas of pink and yellow. In the distance a tiny set of sails, dark and lost, is swallowed up in the vastness of sea and light - and the mental immensity they suggest.
When viewing some of the landscapes, you can look up from the canvas and see real landscapes - lawns and trees - through the many windows in the galleries. "Some of our best views are through the windows," says Kern, laughing again. "That's an important concept of the Clark in general."
If there is a featured player, in addition to the two stars - Clark and Renoir - it is the venue itself. Part of the exhibition is in the existing Clark buildings, but about half of it merges seamlessly into the new addition, an open, multilevel space with many alcoves. The links to Clark are enhanced by about half a dozen statements by him written on the walls - what he thought of the works and his reasons for buying them.
"It's the painted surface Clark's interested in," Kern notes. "He loved the physicality of painting - paintings as objects."