Friday, October 12, 2012

Renoir's Final Decades

Late Renoir June 17, 2010 - September 6, 2010

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the first exhibition to survey the achievement of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) during the last three decades before his death. 80 of the artist’s paintings, sculpture, and drawings were on view, accompanied by a selection of works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, and others who were inspired by the master.

A landmark exhibition, Late Renoir examined new directions that the artist explored several decades after he and others such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro created the new style of painting known as Impressionism. This new and widely admired phase in Renoir’s career propelled him into the modern age and, at the same time, enabled him to recapture a classical past with expressive brushwork and a palette of sensuous colors that were both lyrical and decorative. Late Renoir included major works on loan from public and private collections in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

The exhibition was co-organized by the Reunion des Musées nationaux, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It drew some 420,000 visitors in Paris before traveling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was the only East Coast venue.

“Renoir has a special importance in Philadelphia, which will be the best place in the world this summer to appreciate the breadth and distinctive character of all that he achieved during the last several decades of his life,” said Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “In 1933, the Museum presented the first museum exhibition ever to be devoted to Renoir in the United States and it is now the largest lender to Late Renoir. The Museum’s collection is rich in his works as well as those of his contemporaries, and nearby in Lower Merion, the Barnes Foundation also contains the world’s largest private collection of Renoir’s late paintings. Thus, visitors to Philadelphia will have a double opportunity to experience the most joyful but least understood and, to some, the most rewarding phase of this great artist’s career.”

Renoir had played an active part in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, presenting his work alongside those of his friends Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, and Morisot. He began eventually to distance himself from the group however and by the 1880s he embarked upon new avenues of expression, returning after many years to commissioned portraits. Now less interested in capturing the fleeting moments of everyday life, he also began to pursue timeless subjects, especially the theme of the female nude which became more central as he modeled his figures on the postures of classical sculpture. He opened an artistic dialogue with such old masters as Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Fragonard, and Watteau, while employing fluid brushstrokes and a bright palette that was inspired by his move from Paris to the south of France. Many of Renoir’s late works suggest an endless summer in which youthful, Arcadian figures inhabit a world of beauty and grace. This is the focus of the period from 1890 until Renoir’s death in 1919.

The exhibition in Philadelphia was organized chronologically, enabling the visitor to appreciate the evolution of Renoir’s late style, beginning with portraits and genre scenes and examining his full embrace of the nude and mythological subjects. “Time and again throughout his career, Renoir reinvented the way he worked,” noted Jennifer Thompson, The Gloria and Jack Drosdick Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture before 1900 and the Rodin Museum. “His continual experimentation in his later years appealed to younger artists, so while he is widely admired for his important contributions to Impressionism, audiences may be surprised by how diverse Renoir’s work proves to be.”

Several of the works were seen in Philadelphia only. They include The Guitar Player, 1897 (private collection), which has not been on public view in 90 years or more;

Woman Combing Her Hair, 1908 (private collection);

Woman Tying Her Shoe, c. 1918 (Courtauld Gallery, London); an exquisite drawing lent by the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; and additional drawings and pastels from the Museum’s collection.

A major work not seen at the Paris venue, The Judgment of Paris, 1913-14 (Hiroshima Museum of Art), was added in Los Angeles and was also seen in Philadelphia. Renoir said of this and related works: “the earth was the paradise of the gods . . . that is what I want to paint.”

Other highlights in the exhibition include Two Girls Reading, 1890-91 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a sensitive and intimate genre study distinguished by warm tonalities and free-flowing brushwork;

Girl in a Red Ruff, c. 1896 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which a young girl’s profile appears at once affectionate and iconic;

the light and amusing Bathers Playing with a Crab, c. 1897 (Cleveland Museum of Art), which has been compared to the work of Boucher and Fragonard,

and Gabrielle with a Rose, 1911 (Musee d’Orsay), which treats the theme of the woman at her toilette; Renoir’s frequent model and babysitter for his son Jean is rendered with luminous highlights and a reflective gaze.

The exhibition also offered the opportunity to compare Renoir’s final painting of the bathers with works in the Museum’s collection,

especially the Large Bathers, 1884-87.

“Our monumental painting on this theme was the result of many preparations, and was a great struggle as well as achievement,” Ms. Thompson commented, “but when you come to the lounging odalisques that he painted against a Mediterranean landscape over 30 years later, where figures and landscape assume an equal significance, you witness a sense of freedom from the struggles of existence, which suggests perhaps why Renoir regarded The Bathers of 1918-19 as the culmination of his life’s work.” Matisse called this painting, “one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.”

More Images

About the Artist:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges on February 25, 1841. The son of tailor, Renoir moved to Paris as a young child where he grew up near the Palais du Louvre which would later play a critical role in his career and artistic development. Apprenticed to a porcelain painter at age thirteen, Renoir’s first love was painting; he spent his free time copying paintings at the Louvre and visiting the studio of the academic painter Charles Gleyre. Renoir enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1862 and in 1864 exhibited his first painting at the Salon.

During the late 1860s Renoir became friendly with a group of young artists who painted outdoors in the forest at Fontainebleau and rejected conventional academic painting methods in favor of working in front of a motif and using spontaneous, free brushwork. Their paintings, criticized for their rough paint handling, were rejected by Salon juries. In 1874 the group organized an independent exhibition of their work; the sketch-like paintings which they displayed caused one critic to dub them ‘Impressionists.’ Renoir exhibited with the Impressionists from 1874 to 1877 and became known for his portraits and scenes of modern Parisians at leisure, enjoying dances, attending the theatre, or rowing on the Seine.

By the early 1880s Renoir was dissatisfied with the limitations of the Impressionist technique and subject matter and undertook a series of travels within France and to Algeria and Italy. Influenced by ancient art and the work of Renaissance painters like Raphael, Titian, and Veronese, he sought to adapt his new manner of painting from nature with the art of the past. Working a linear style with a pale palette, he proclaimed his break from Impressionism and bold ambitions in a monumental work of 1884-87, Large Bathers (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In 1885 a son, Pierre, was born to Renoir and Aline Charigot, a seamstress who was one of his models in the 1880s; the couple married in 1890.

In 1892 the French state commissioned a painting by Renoir to hang in the national museum. Young Girls at the Piano (Musée d’Orsay) became the first work by an Impressionist painter to enter the state’s collection and signaled that the public had finally recognized the innovations of Renoir’s painting style and its place within the history of French painting. In this decade his scenes of young bourgeois women, wearing elaborate costumes and hats and engaged in leisure activities were popular with collectors and ensured Renoir’s financial security. With his growing family (a second son, Jean, was born in 1894), Renoir divided his time between Paris and the village of Essoyes in Champagne where his wife grew up as well as travel to Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and England.

At the Salon d’Automne in 1904, an entire room was devoted to a survey of Renoir’s career and attracted the attention of younger artists. Troubled by arthritis and increasingly limited in his movements, Renoir and his family spent much of their time in the south of France. They rented a house in the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer until 1907 when they purchased the nearby farm of Les Collettes. The family also maintained an apartment in Nice where their three sons (Claude was born in 1901) went to school. Renoir’s energies in this decade were focused on timeless subjects that recalled the classical past such as bathers, Mediterranean landscapes, and mythological scenes. He made his first experiments with sculpture in 1908 when he modeled in plaster a head of his youngest son Claude. A steady stream of artists, including Maurice Denis, Auguste Rodin, and Aristide Maillol, visited Renoir in Cagnes.

Renoir painted ceaselessly in the last decade of his life. His work was seen less frequently in Paris, but exhibitions of his latest material, like a show held at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1913, astonished collectors, artists, and critics who proclaimed that he was “the greatest living painter.” Henri Matisse moved to Nice in December 1917 and became a frequent visitor to Les Collettes where he and Renoir exchanged ideas about painting. On the advice of the dealer Ambroise Vollard, Renoir continued his exploration of sculpture, relying on young sculptors to produce plaster models with his input since he was no longer able to handle the clay himself. Renoir died on December 3, 1919, having worked on a still life of anemones earlier in the day and declaring “I think I am beginning to understand something about painting.”


The exhibition was accompanied by an impressive 440-page scholarly catalogue, published in separate English and French editions. A sumptuous production with 319 illustrations, 213 in full color, it presents a comprehensive overview of Renoir’s late career, the first of its kind. Edited by Sylvie Patry (Musée d’Orsay) and Claudia Einecke (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the exhibition catalogue offers new research and fresh ideas on this largely unpublished topic. The catalogue includes 13 essays by established as well as younger scholars and curators, individual entries for each object in the exhibition, and an illustrated chronology. Contributors to the catalogue include: John House, The Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; Roger Benjamin, Research Professor in the History of Art at the University of Sydney; Virginie Journiac, curator of the Musée Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France; Guy Cogeval, Isabelle Gaëtan, Monique Nonne, Laurence Madeline, and Emmanuelle Héran of the Musée d’Orsay; Claudia Einecke, and Sylvie Patry.