Renoir,Shmenoir

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

What they did was enroll him at Gleyre's atelier in November 1861. Colin Bailey's notes on Forty-Three Portraits of Painters in Gleyre's Atelier reveal that Renoir was no artistic prodigy, consistently ranking near the bottom of his class. Yet while the early canvases in the Kimbell's exhibit do show a certain difficulty painting decipherable backgrounds, by and large they are amazingly strong. As they reveal, Renoir was essentially a mockingbird, trying on and then discarding various "modern" styles. Thus his 1863 painting of The Inn at Mere-Antony owes much to Courbet, while The Artist's Brother, Pierre-Henri Renoir mimics the Pre-Raphaelites.

During this period, Renoir had a series of early successes at the Salon, the sometimes annual, sometimes semiannual state-sponsored exhibition of French painting. His Portrait of William Sisley (1864), in the Kimbell's show, was one of a series of early paintings that were accepted for exhibition at the Salon. And as the catalogue points out, these early successes helped Renoir garner enough portrait commissions to keep himself in paint and brushes for the two decades it took him to find a regular dealer. (Renoir was the last Impressionist to be taken on by Paul Durand-Ruel, the legendary Parisian dealer, who did not begin regularly buying Renoir's canvases until 1881.)

As Renoir told Gimpel, this era of his life gained him not only classical training and commissions, but most importantly a peer group. And in one of those fortunate accidents of timing, Renoir and his friends found themselves in what was then the epicenter of the art world, at the precise moment when conditions were ripe for painting to take a dramatic historical turn.

Since 1648, when one of Louis XIV's ministers organized the state art academy (later the Ecole des Beaux Arts) in an effort to transform French painters from mere artisans to intellectuals, French art had evolved into a strictly academic and hierarchical style. To keep the next generation in line, the establishment employed the usual carrot-and-stick method, the carrot being the Prix de Rome, awarded yearly to the most promising (read: conventional) up-and-coming French painters. The prize was nothing to sniff at: an all-expense paid trip to Rome to study and paint at the Beaux Arts' school in the Villa Medici. Of course, with it came the trimmings--clients, renown, state purchases for the Louvre.

The stick was in turn supplied by critics and the public, who cared desperately about art, intellectuals having long been to France what football stars are to the United States. Like the critics, the bourgeoisie were essentially conservative, eager to torture innovators for the requisite three or four decades it then took for the avant-garde to become the establishment. Under these tacit conditions, the French avant-garde thrived. The generation before the Impressionists--the so-called men of 1830, today known as the Barbizon school--rebelled by painting realistic scenes from nature, rather than the historical and literary allegories then deemed fit subjects for painting.

If the resulting scenes of nature and peasants laboring in the field weren't exactly Piss Christ, they did show the cruelty of nature and the rawness of real life, and in their time were considered scandalous. They in turn enormously influenced the Impressionists, not only encouraging them to choose modern life as their subject, but also paving the way for their Quixotic quest to capture nature and sunlight on canvas.

Bless his heart, Renoir tried. From the early 1860s through the late '70s he tagged along with his cohorts to paint outdoors in an effort to capture the true effects of sunlight. The Kimbell's show contains many of these efforts, from Claude Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (1874) to The Daughters of Paul Durand-Ruel (1882). Even his portraits set indoors during this high-Impressionist period feature the loosely brushed and daubed style that drove the French bonkers.

But Renoir was the most ironic of modernists. Though he frequented the laboratories of modernism--the Cafe Guerbois, the forest of Fontainebleau and the places where middle-class Parisians spent their leisure--a part of him was never wholly dedicated to the venture. He was never, for example, obsessed with presenting "truth." Profoundly conservative, a part of Renior was none too comfortable with reality. He liked myth. He secretly admired the 18th-century French Rococo, especially the fantastic and idealized work of painters like Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher. "I am of the 18th century," he later explained to Gimpel.

It is ironic, then, that Renoir's claim to fame is based upon Impressionism, which struggled to paint with the eye rather than the mind. But Renoir didn't much fancy nature as a subject. "I am classified as a painter of figure, and quite rightly," Renoir told Gimpel in 1918, a year before the painter's death. "My landscapes are nothing but accessories."

And when life wasn't pretty enough in Renoir's view, he made it so--an error in judgment that explains the fictitious cotton-candy femmes and china-doll children sprinkled throughout the Kimbell's show. As Renoir told art dealer Ambroise Vollard, "For me, a picture should be something likeable, joyous, and pretty--yes, pretty. There are enough ugly things in life for us not to add to them."

Unfortunately, the Kimbell's show isn't above a little mythmaking of its own. "By 1900," we are told, "Renoir's works, both early and late, had become as expensive--or even more so--than paintings by any other living artist, with collectors competing to own them," according to the Kimbell. This statement, made without support, is a neat bit of revisionist history that flies in the face of a great deal of recent scholarly detective work.

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