Reflecting on his life's work, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir remarked, "They don't take people seriously who smile."
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.
The exhibition makes visually clear how closely knit the Impressionist circle was. Monet and his wife, Camille, were depicted in separate portraits by Renoir. The show includes the seldom-seen portrait of Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot with her daughter Julie Manet. Morisot was married to Eugne Manet, brother of the painter douard Manet.
Also on view is work commissioned by Renoir's greatest patron, the banker and diplomat Paul-Antoine Berard. Uncharacteristically, Renoir pictured little "Margot Berard" (1879) as she posed, her eyes filled with fresh tears.
While Renoir's late portraits are often criticized for their slack handling of paint, one modest scene has the immediacy of a snapshot. "Gabrielle and Jean" (1895) shows a nursemaid playing with Renoir's son Jean, who became one of France's premier filmmakers.
Although Renoir did not consider himself an intellectual, he phrased one of the most enduring questions in art. "How difficult it is to know just where the imitation of nature in a picture might stop," he remarked. That query permeates "Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age."
* After the exhibit closes in Ottawa on Sept. 14, it travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, Oct. 17, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Feb. 8-April 26, 1998.
JOY-GIVING, DECORATIVE ART WAS RENOIR'S IDEAL
As a child, Pierre-Auguste Renoir showed a special talent for drawing. In 1856, when he was 15 years old, his parents apprenticed him to a painter of china, where the boy was occupied in adding decorative touches, like images of birds and flowers. He began teaching himself the craft of painting, and when he had earned enough money, left the china factory and became an art student.
From the first, he understood painting as a decorative, joy-giving art, not an instrument of aesthetic or political revolution. He is said to have stunned his teacher at the prestigious cole des Beaux-Arts by stating that "if painting were not a pleasure to me I should certainly not do it."
Although he was a lifelong friend of painter Claude Monet, Renoir did not share Monet's organized study of the effects wrought by atmosphere and color. Nor did Renoir experiment with jarring, angular compositions in the manner of painter Edgar Degas.
The quick, light touch of the porcelain painter informed Renoir's work. His impressionism is characterized by nimble, flickering brushstrokes and tender pastels used to show scenes of human contentment.
A WEALTH OF ATTRACTIONS IN CANADA'S CAPITAL
Ottawa is a museum city. Twenty-nine museums, large and small, dot this metropolitan area of 1 million people. The two largest collections, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, are housed in striking new buildings on opposite sides of the Ottawa River.
As befits a museum in a capital city, the National Gallery has a rich collection of Canadian art, including work by the landscape painters of the 1920s and 1930s called the Group of Seven, and changing exhibitions of the historic and contemporary art of Canada's First Peoples. In addition, it contains a fine collection of prints, among them work by Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and an outstanding collection of photographs, both of which are shown to advantage in spacious, low-lit galleries.
The Museum of Civilization, across the river in Hull, Quebec, traces the history of human settlement in Canada, from prehistoric times to the present. Its outstanding Grand Hall, with 50-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, displays the impressive art and religious objects of six Pacific Coast Indian groups. Elaborately carved and painted house facades are accompanied by large canoes and totem poles. The museum boasts the world's largest collection of totem poles.
Near the Parliament buildings is the National Arts Centre, which presents Canadian, European, Asian, and US theatrical and dance productions in English and French. The neighboring Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography exhibits Canadian work and an international spectrum of avant-garde photography and installation art. Also centrally located is the Currency Museum, which traces the history of money from its beginnings in wampum and beaver pelts.