“Late Renoir”

ONE THING A FAMOUS, elderly, or dead artist’s work can never be is too late. There has been widespread interest in “late” shows lately—the mesmerizing late interiors of Bonnard, Picasso’s musketeers, Monet’s late water lilies, and the confusing last efforts of Warhol and Dalí have all recently been presented for reconsideration. Central to this trend is the exhibition “Late Renoir,” on view this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which examined the surprisingly divisive output of this ubiquitous artist’s final years.

The Philadelphia exhibition covered roughly the period from 1890 until Renoir’s death in 1919 (a slightly different version, with the far more thought-provoking title “Renoir in the Twentieth Century,” previously visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Grand Palais in Paris). The show, curated here by Jennifer Thompson, commenced with the artist’s marriage in 1890 and his subsequent absorption, at the rather advanced age of forty-nine, into the rhythms of family life. He had begun to repudiate Impressionism during the decade before his marriage, becoming more focused on drawing and structure and looking to earlier painters, notably Raphael and Ingres, for guidance. His methods had already begun to evolve from spontaneous execution in the presence of the subject to analysis and construction from memory. Renoir was imagining an art more “traditional” than Impressionism was then thought to be (less “post-studio”), but based on the evidence, the traits that make Renoir’s late work simultaneously regressive and advanced, and hence so moving and strange, didn’t fully assert themselves until after the turn of the century.

Renoir had always practiced a private religion of the ordinary. Among the varsity Impressionists, his subject matter had most thoroughly accounted for contemporary society and the ageless rhythms of mundane domestic life, as memorialized in French painting at least since Corot. By the early 1890s, resistance to Renoir’s work had long since dissipated, and the apparently warm picture of bourgeois society that suffused his vision was hugely popular. Young Girls at the Piano, 1892, has the slightly formulaic air of an instant classic. But things were starting to change. In Two Girls Reading, ca. 1890–91, the prepubescent reverie and youthful pulchritude of the sweet little protagonists emerge from a slurry of brushstrokes that obliquely suggests the weird rumblings under the skin of the work. A piece like Gabrielle Reading, 1906, clearly shows a quiet shift within such quotidian subjects. As Renoir’s facture became at once gauzier and more assertive, a generalized, nonspecific libido became more pronounced, and the palette became redder, more associated with body heat and the feel of sunlight on flesh. The model who posed for this work was a cousin of Renoir’s wife who had moved in with them to help with the children and became a close friend and favorite model of her employer. Gabrielle came to embody for Renoir the specific manifestation of an archetype (and she was always available). Her physical aspect became a virtual template for his subsequent ruminations on females in nature. In the later Judgment of Paris, 1913–14, the nudes in this mythological confection seem to be almost versions of one another, as though Gabriel had multiplied, like Agent Smith in The Matrix.

While Renoir relied on living models and real situations for his subjects, his search for the eternal within the everyday seemed only to gain added urgency in his advanced age, which may explain his fascination with the superimposition of mythological narratives onto contemporary subjects, as in the strange Young Shepherd in Repose (Portrait of Alexander Thurneyssen), 1911, in which the adolescent son of a patron is represented in “classical” guise as a stoned-looking shepherd boy in a sexy animal skin, grooving on little birds. Jean as a Huntsman, 1910, similarly echoes the conventions of earlier aristocratic portraiture, presenting the artist’s son as an elegant hunter—which he was not—with rifle and hound. These pictures’ edgy playfulness around questions of class and comportment undermines and extends our usual sense of this artist’s bourgeois sympathies.

Paintings of nudes increasingly preoccupied him. While the mythological and religious angles of this French painting tradition had been cut off by Impressionist diktat, there were precedents, notably in the work of Courbet and Manet, for a secular approach, and Renoir’s good friend Cézanne had, as early as the mid-1870s, begun painting from his imagination figure studies in the bather tradition. Renoir himself had executed numerous smaller works in addition to The Bathers, 1887, a masterpiece of his “prelate” period that permanently resides in Philadelphia and so, as a bonus addendum to this exhibition, made a telling point of comparison with the later material. Unlike Cézanne, Renoir clearly had direct experience of and enthusiastic affection for the naked human female. But as for Cézanne, for Renoir the content of the female form superseded the sexual, becoming a sort of structural datum with unintended psychological spandrels having more to do with womb envy than with any need to titillate. Early in the exhibition, Bather Sitting on a Rock, 1892, and Bather with Long Hair, ca. 1895–96, demonstrate the artist’s tender yet ardent feelings toward girls of recent maturity, and they provide a glimpse of the battling hindsight and foresight that came to characterize this later phase. Farther on in the show, Bather with Brown Hair (Gabrielle Drying Herself), 1909, and, more emphatically, Seated Bather, 1914, embody the weirdly attractive, inflated stolidity that was the organic outgrowth of Renoir’s ideas concerning both painting and women.

The exhibition began to approach a kind of climax with the paintings Reclining Nude (Bather), 1902, and Nude on Cushions, 1907, two among a number of works Renoir based on the model of Titian’s 1538 Venus of Urbino, the mind-blowing icon that had urged Goya and Manet to new levels of heterosexual lucidity and painterly candor. Renoir’s versions eschew the carnal—yet it remains as background radiation, leftover evidence of an earlier “big bang.” The fuzzy, chubby anatomical details, fussed over yet oddly indistinct, the swollen curves of the cushions or the undulating ground on which the models rest, even the vague, abstracted half smiles that play on their faces, contribute to an atmosphere of innocence by consensus, proof of a conspiracy of silence between artist and model into which anyone beholding these paintings, if so attuned, can also enter.

The Bathers, 1918–19, the last large painting Renoir finished, was the psychological epicenter of the exhibition. It repeats the format of the 1887 Bathers, echoing that picture’s secondary group of figures playing in the right middle distance and the use of discarded clothing to extend the aura of the feminine into the surrounding landscape. The later Bathers deploys two zaftig demigoddesses floating both in and on the landscape—rolling, doughy estrogen bombs animating the glowing surface of their pulsating electric Eden. The paint is thin and light, and the painting glows. Everything seems composed of a gassy alloy of substance and feeling, like a higher-dimensional Impressionism. Renoir repainted the picture several times to arrive at what he felt was a profound new equilibrium, and the work was considered by him and others at the time to be his masterpiece. With utter specificity, in a manner unlike that of any of his contemporaries, Renoir achieved here the seamless fusion of subject and process, of psychology and physicality.

It is impossible to appreciate these last paintings without understanding the artist’s physical situation in old age. A painter’s body is his first and primary tool, and all painting is a negotiation between the psychophysical patterns of the artist and the fabric of expectations that surrounds him. In 1897, Renoir fell from a bicycle and broke his arm, descending into a crippling rheumatoid arthritis that left him wheelchair-bound for most of his final two decades. Here is a description of his condition from his son Jean’s memoir: “His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made the joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and his fingers to bend towards the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity.” There is a jarring film clip among the memorabilia of the exhibition, scratchy and jumpy old black-and-white footage, which shows the artist sitting before his easel in his wheelchair, using a wrist harness to hold his brush, alternately jabbing at a canvas and smoking. His urgency and aggression illustrate the enthusiastic, guilt-free gravity with which Renoir approached these wildly misunderstood pictures.

Amazingly, one frequently receives blank stares upon expressing admiration for these paintings. A common view (recently aired in the show’s New York Times review) is that the aged Renoir was a lazy (or spacey) sellout with delusions of radicality, physically hamstrung and aesthetically calcified, the paintings just plain silly and available only to ironic appreciation. To be frank, there is something vapid and annoying about much of this work. Renoir’s interest in motifs became formulaic, and the relentless softness and roundness of his depictions can feel like empty shtick (Botero is one heir). But to succumb entirely to this reading is a cop-out, absolving us of the responsibility to outwit our invisible (and blinding) assumptions. Matisse was among those who thought that the final Bathers was one of the masterpieces of Western painting, and as the periodic juxtapositions in the show amply demonstrate, younger artists found something crucial and unique in Renoir’s example that they could find nowhere else: a bridge connecting advanced pictorial thinking to the mythic roots of visual culture. Renoir’s philosophy of the figure helped Picasso make his escape from the maze of abstraction, and the late Renoir’s touch encouraged Bonnard in his dissolution of perceptual boundaries. There is a kinkier relationship, unfortunately not represented here, between Renoir and de Chirico, who fell under the spell of these paintings during his own vastly underrated middle phase and made several reclining nude portraits of his blond wife “in the manner of” late Renoir.

It can be confusing to realize that Renoir—like Monet—was active during the first two decades of the previous century, well past the sell-by date of his generation’s perceived historical influence, and that his activities were widely followed. This is an inadequacy of our art-historical narratives: What to do with the history of old artists? From one standpoint, a history of the work of elderly artists would be a history of wisdom, something that our society finds in short supply at the moment. Renoir was very smart and in no way antimodern. In fact, his son said Renoir “sympathized with the aims of abstract painting,” of which he was aware, and also described him at the end of his life as “freed from all theories, from all fears.” A person in command of their faculties, operating from such a position, has much to tell us if we want to listen. If we lived in a world where Renoir’s late work were easy to like, we’d probably all be a lot happier. Too late.

Carroll Dunham is a New York–based artist.