At The Clark, Renoir’s focus on the human form

The Williamstown, Massachusetts, museum celebrates the artist 100 years after his death with 'The Body, the Senses'
“Bathers Playing with a Crab,” c. 1897, oil on fabric, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Copyright The Cleveland Museum of Art.
“Bathers Playing with a Crab,” c. 1897, oil on fabric, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Copyright The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Many know Pierre-Auguste Renoir for his impressionist paintings of joyous party scenes, cherubic children and idyllic settings.  

However, the latest exhibition at the Clark Art Institute highlights how the artist spent much of his career glorifying the human form, not only impressionistically but in a host of avant-garde styles. 

“Renoir: The Body, the Senses” looks at Renoir’s career and legacy through the lens of the nude, celebrating the artist 100 years after his death.  

Depicting people in vibrant hues and layers of color, bringing out the light in each figure, his paintings have a richness in both texture and a sense of undeniable joy.  

“In all honesty what I love to paint the most is the nude woman,” Renoir said. 

That’s reflected in the exhibition, from the supple and languid look of the figure in “Blonde Bather” to the melancholy-looking “A Young Girl with Daisies.” There’s no doubt that his work is sensual; critics and reviewers of Renoir’s time went back and forth on whether or not his works were too brazen.  

In today’s age, that’s probably not the issue that viewers will take with his works. As the gap between art and artist seems to be nearly non-existent, it’s hard to ignore Renoir’s beliefs. 

“In contrast to the refinement and caressing sensuality of Renoir’s late bathers, the artist’s obiter dicta on the subject, which mostly date from after 1900, and his opinion on women in general, can appear course and, at times demeaning. He is on record as dismissing female writers, lawyers, and politicians as ‘monsters,’” writes Colin B. Bailey in the exhibition catalog. 

Renoir held women on a pedestal, just not one of power. While he created many of the nude paintings and sculptures during a time when there was a growing women’s rights movement, Renoir’s work doesn’t really acknowledge this.  

Though some of his figures seem like they have some semblance of personality, others are entirely devoid of one. He often hired live models, though not to directly capture their likeness. Fernande Gabrielle Renard, one of his models, may have posed for as many as 200 paintings for the artist, though one wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that simply by looking at the pieces.

“The model is only there to excite me . . . she allows me to try things that I would never dare to invent without her,” Renoir said. 

While Renoir was socially stodgy, he was artistically progressive. Growing up in the 1840s and 1850s right down the street from the Louvre, Renoir became fascinated with art from a young age. When he continued onto an apprenticeship and then to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1862, his goal was to create works in response to the artists who came before him. At the end of his lifetime, he said, “I never thought of myself as a revolutionary painter; I just wanted to continue in the tradition of the Louvre.”

Indeed, throughout the exhibit, his pieces are often paired with small prints of pieces from the Louvre which inspired him. 

In that sense, he was carrying on the tradition, though it would be a disservice to say that he wasn’t in some ways a revolutionary painter. Renoir’s style shifted so much throughout his career, it seems like his subject, usually the nude, was a constant. 

He first painted in the style of the Realists in the 1860s before moving on to exhibit alongside fellow Impressionist painters in the 1870s. 

One particularly pivotal piece both in the exhibition and in Renoir’s career was “Study. Torso of a Woman in Sunlight,” The figure’s face is lit up in the most surprising way, with her cheeks glowing and dappled light falling across her arms and chest. She is placed in a rich backdrop of flickering blues and greens, that seem to nearly caress her figure. 

“He took the traditional figure and experimented,” said The Clark’s Esther Bell, the exhibition’s co-curator. “It didn’t necessarily go well.”

Albert Wolff, one staunch critic, wrote: “Would someone kindly explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the green and purplish blotches that indicate a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse.”

No matter, Renoir continued to work impressionistically until in the 1880s, he felt he’d done all he could with it. Searching for something new, he looked to the artists who had come before him, this time on a long trip to Italy, where he studied the works of Italian masters.

He is so inspired that he has an impasse with impressionism and turned instead to a style now called classical impressionism. The change threatened his career, both in terms of finances and reputation, as some thought the sudden inclusion of rigorous lines and structure combined with impressionism, didn’t work. Renoir forged ahead, working for three years on a piece called “The Great Bathers,” finally completing it in 1887. One woman with her back to the viewer looks like she’s just about to splash a bather in the midst of turning away from her and another who is attempting to dry off. 

An entire section of the exhibit is packed with preparatory drawings and figure studies of the piece, most done on burnt orange paper with red and white chalk.

According to curators Bell and George T. M. Shackelford (of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas) the drawings have not been exhibited together since 1990.

They reveal a level of care and precision that one might expect goes into making a masterpiece.

The exhibition also details Renoir’s attraction to decorative tradition. While some looked down on “decorative” artists, throughout his lifetime, Renoir didn’t shy away from creating ceramics, furniture, sculptures, frames, carvings and paintings. 

“There’s a lot of beauty but there’s a lot of intelligence,” Shackleford said. 

One would be hard-pressed to prove that the artist was afraid to go outside the norm not only with color but style, process and medium. During his later years, as his health declined and he had to use a cloth to wrap the paintbrush in his hand or have his assistants help him paint, his style once changed. The figures became softer, and he started using thinner paint so that each layer was visible to the viewer. 

“The Bathers,” which was completed in 1919, during the final year of the artist’s life, is perhaps his most conceptual and controversial piece. In the foreground, two liquid-looking women lounge, as a few other figures in the background are swallowed up by the landscape, with one seeming to sink to the bottom of a pool. 

“This is the final major painting of his career, we call it a manifesto painting. It’s a summation of everything that’s happened up until this point [in his career],” Bell said. 

Throughout the exhibit, and especially nearby “The Bathers,” works by Suzanne Valadon, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard echo some of the techniques and styles that Renoir attempted. Some like Valadon’s “Two Figures (After the Bath, Neither White nor Black),” have figures that share in the liquid-quality of Renoir’s “The Bathers.” 

Others, like Pablo Picasso’s “Two Reclining Nudes,” take inspiration from Renoir’s work and go in a completely new direction. 

Thus, at the end of his life, Renoir had achieved what he set out to do, continue on an artistic tradition that for Renoir all started at the Louvre.

If you go:

Take the time to step into “Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet.”

The sound installation envelopes the listener with a deconstructed recording of Thomas Tallis’ sixteenth-century choral work “Spem In alium (Hope in any other).”
40 speakers are placed in an oval and for 11 minutes, each plays out the recording of an individual singer’s voice. In between those loops, there’s also a few minutes of quiet, where listeners can hear the shuffling of people and the chit-chat of the singers as they get ready to perform again. 

It’s startling in its sudden silence and its thunderous rise. Walking around, one feels as if they are immersed in the chorus, a part of the performance somehow. Whether you stay for one loop or several, it’s well worth the time. 

“Renoir: The Body, The Senses” will be on exhibit until September 22 and “Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet” will be at the Clark until September 15. For more info visit 

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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