It's not exactly Dogs Playing Poker, but Christine Biederman says the Kimbell Art Museum's new Renoir exhibit panders to the masses

In candid moments, even those with personal stakes in promoting Renoir's legend will fess up. "It's too bad about Renoir," sighed a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Renoir show camped before journeying to Fort Worth. "His son was a great artist." This comes from an employee of the largest lender to the show. Indeed, in some circles, Renoir constitutes a basic taste-and-intelligence test: the art-historical equivalent of sussing out whether someone owns a Barry Manilow CD or votes for Ross Perot.

Here's a clue to Renoir's importance: The Kimbell doesn't even own a Renoir. (Remember the definitive-excellence-only rule?) Despite the fact that Renoir claimed to have sold more than 3,000 canvases during his lifetime, excellence in Renoir's case is exceedingly rare and outrageously pricey. Renoir currently holds the distinction of having painted the second-highest-priced canvas ever to sell at auction; in 1990 his La Moulin de la Galette went to a Japanese businessman for $78.1 million.

But the show, which was organized by Colin Bailey, the Kimbell's former head curator, doesn't discuss this, or any of a thousand other fascinating riddles surrounding Renoir. For we are living in an age of play-it-safe museum shows, shows that have purposes other than to ask provocative questions. Perhaps as a result, Renoir's Portraits contents itself with doing basic detective work into the identities of sitters and what Stuckey calls "the business of being an artist."

Oh, sure, Bailey tackles a few of the little problems, like when is a portrait not a portrait and whether Renoir solved certain "aesthetic paradoxes" supposedly inherent in portrait-painting (to no one's surprise, they claim he did). Of course the audience isn't really supposed to trouble its head with these koans, as evidenced by the fact that most of the notes to the catalog and even quotations in the text are untranslated from the French. Not that the English is any easier to decipher. "Nowhere is the precarious relationship between the conventional and the progressive, between the (largely) conservative expectations of a bourgeoise clientele and (largely) destabilizing ambitions of an impressionist figure painter, of such pressing importance as in Renoir's portraiture." Translation: The clients who commissioned Renoir wanted old-fashioned flattery; Renoir offered newfangled flattery but also needed to eat. They compromised. Now this way to the gift store, please.

"Seated, he is a frightful spectacle, elbows clamped to his sides, forearms raised...shaking two sinister stumps dangling with threads and ribbons."

So wrote art dealer-diarist Rene Gimpel in 1918, after visiting the 77-year-old Renoir. Then in the last year of his life, Renoir was famously decrepit; the stumps were arthritic hands, their fingers "pressed in and spread against the the claws of a chicken plucked and trussed ready for the spit," Gimpel wrote. (Renoir's nurse/model explained how the artist nevertheless managed to paint--not to mention smoke: "I place the brushes between his fingers and fasten them with...strings and ribbons" she explained. "Sometimes they fall, and I put them back.")

Despite these indignities, Gimpel found the old bird mentally undiminished. He had outlived most of his enemies and procured a new generation of wealthy American friends. They included Mrs. Potter Palmer (whose collection eventually formed the core of the Art Institute of Chicago), Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer (whose collection eventually went to New York's Metropolitan Museum), and countless lesser tycoons. Consequently, by 1918 the dealers were involved in madcap attempts to beg, buy, or steal his canvases--a pastime that prompted Gimpel's own pilgrimage to the house of Renoir.

As Gimpel reports, by this time Renoir was considered a great master, though his canvases still brought less than Monet's, Edouard Manet's, or Edgar Degas'. Renoir emerges as a sympathetic figure, a trustworthy friend, and, in contrast to Charles Stuckey's suggestion, a shrewd businessman. (When Gimpel asked the Impressionist dealer Durand-Ruel whether Monet was well-off, Durand-Ruel replied that Monet was "much less so than Renoir, who alone [among the Impressionists] is really rich." He was also refreshingly unsentimental about the Impressionists' achievements.

"It was chance," Renoir told Gimpel, reflecting on the beginnings of Impressionism in the mid-19th century. "There was a Swiss in Paris, Gleyre, who had a very cheap class in drawing. And there I met Monet, Sisley, Bazille. It was our mutual poverty that brought us together...Each of us on his own wouldn't have had the strength or the courage, or even the idea."

Indeed, Renoir's life presents a series of critical art-history lessons, such as the importance of being in the right place at the right time.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1841 in the province of Limoges, in western France. The fifth of six children born to a tailor and a dressmaker, Renoir's parents moved the family to Paris when Renoir was 4. Pierre-Auguste's brother reports that the painter's education ended at 15, when he was apprenticed to a china painter. Renoir plied this trade until he was 18, in his spare time taking whatever free classes in drawing and painting he could find. Eventually one of Renoir's teachers advised his parents to "let [your] son become a proper painter. In our trade he may at the most earn 12 or 15 francs. I predict a brilliant future for him in the world of art. See what you can do."

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