New York

Pierre-Auguste Renoir


The Renoir show was an interesting disappointment. Disappointment may not be quite the word, since to tell the truth I have never been enthusiastic about Renoir, but until now I have tried to withhold judgment, thinking the fault might be mine. That seems more difficult to do after this show, even though there were extenuating circumstances. One was the selection of pieces in the show. It consists largely of portraits, which gives a badly distorted view of what Renoir painted, and for that matter cannot even be used to trace the development of how he painted unless one uses the paintings in the present show simply as reminders of what his paintings on other themes look like. And no doubt the selection was partly determined by cost and availability, whose heavy hands are felt throughout the exhibition. The fact remains that the show was poor, and I wonder if any show of this ostensible sort—a comprehensive survey of the work of a painter considered to be a master—ought to be done at all if it cannot be done properly.

Anyway, it is especially important to see a fair sampling of Renoir’s output because his position in Impressionism is problematic, and part of the difficulty depends on subject matter. “Impressionism” is a label and it is worth what labels are worth; it can be useful, but its use must not be allowed to obscure questions about its meaning. To me it has always seemed that Impressionism is not a very cohesive movement, for reasons which I have given elsewhere more than once; and Renoir stands apart from all the other “Impressionists,” whatever their tendency. What distinguishes him from Monet and Pissarro is his touch, which covers everything he painted with a kind of light silk or fur that is far too elegant for the cabbage-patch naturalism that characterizes all Pissarro’s subjects and until the late seventies all Monet’s. But if technique is what distinguished him from Monet and Pissarro, subject matter separates him from Manet and Degas, who of course paint a very different world than Renoir. And also Renoir’s want of intellect, which is such a striking aspect of his art—he simply could not imagine structure. And if the two tendencies within what we call Impressionism are conceived of as coalescing, it rather surprisingly appears that the result is even farther away from Renoir: they did coalesce in Bazille, and it is harder to imagine a greater dissimilarity between two contemporaries whose art is usually thought to be related (and who did, in fact, sometimes work together) than between Renoir and Bazille. I think that what ruins the validity of all these comparisons, whether of subject or of style, is a difference of temperament. Renoir was a hedonist, purely and simply; he was never interested in the kind of intellectual construction that makes of a painting an object with an existence of its own. He painted as rabbits . . . eat lettuce, and he did something else that rabbits do quite as much as they; and it would seem that for him painting was much the same kind of activity—a compulsion or an indulgence, an unreflecting overflow of effervescent good spirits. His style does not grow out of a study of visual phenomena, especially atmospheric effects (as in early Monet), or out of an effort to elaborate a world of visionary subjectivity (as with late Monet), or out of a wish to depict a particular sector of life by means of designs that are worked out intellectually (as in Degas or Manet); he simply wanted to enjoy himself and, if possible, to delight others. It really is that simple. It’s a lot, and one can’t have everything; but since one has to choose, the question is whether this was really to choose the most important. To my mind the most revealing measure of this inclination of Renoir’s is his indebtedness to 18th-century painters. His portraits, in particular (and they make up the greater part of this show), are all quite clearly recollections of Perronneau or Latour (especially Child with a Hoop, 1875, Portraits of Children, 1876, and Child with an Apple, 1876); his animals (Cat on a Blue Cushion, 1871) of Oudry; sometimes he looks as late in the century as Greuze (Portrait of Claude Renoir, 1902), but Greuze at his most rococo. His early work as a painter of porcelain may have predisposed him to admire Fragonard’s glazes, but I think his temperament would have led him to them anyway: even where he is quite deliberately following Daubigny or Throsseau, it is striking how unable he is to avoid the mannerisms of painting of the Picturesque.

About preferences such as his, two things must be kept in mind. The first is the quality of his predecessors. Oudry and Perronneau are doubtlessly good painters, but they are certainly not in the first rank, and in taking so much from them Renoir ran the risk that pupils generally run, of not being as good as their masters: that is one reason why it is so very advantageous to choose major masters. The second point has to do with the relevance of Renoir’s sources to the art of his own time. After all, even at the time when it was painted much of the art that Renoir admired was frankly escapist, and by the mid-1870s it must have seemed even more so. But in addition it has the drawback of not being remote enough. T. S. Eliot once remarked that good poets usually choose as their masters poets far removed from them in time; it is an astute observation. Now just a couple of generations before Renoir’s, one had seen Isabey trying to be picturesque, Giodet trying to be rococo; and for them it made sense: especially after the Restoration, it was entirely logical for artists to turn back to the forms of a monarchical society. No doubt it was its intellectual irrelevance to his day, its purely sensory, sensuous stimulation that caused Renoir to revert to this style so soon after its revival earlier in his century, but it was to open a closet whose skeletons were still warm. Another, and to my mind more interesting question, is whether sensual stimulation can produce a really important art unless it is allied with a very deep current of fantasy, which is also erotic. Renoir’s world, like that of his son’s film Boudu Saved from Drowning (cf. The Promenade, 1870, which is almost a still from the movie!), is not of that depth at all; indeed, if we observe how close Renoir’s eroticism was to Bouguereau’s, we can see how limited it was: Bather in a Landscape, 1877 and Young Girl Bathing, 1888, have important lessons to teach. Actually, it may be a credit to Renoir’s talent that, with so much going against it, it led to as good an art as it did!

Jerrold Lanes